La belle noiseuse

by Glenn Erickson May 12, 2018

The late Jacques Rivette knocks us silly with a breathtaking meditation on what it means to be an artist, and what art demands of those that believe in it. A woman roped into posing nude for a famed but insecure painter, undergoes several intense days of compliant collaboration. Rivette’s unforced style gives the impression of life as it is being lived; his commitment is matched by that of actors Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin and Emmanuelle Béart.

La belle noiseuse
Cohen Media Group
1991 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 238 min. / The Beautiful Troublemaker / Street Date May 8, 2018 / 30.99
Starring: Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, Marianne Denicourt, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marie Belluc.
Cinematography: William Lubtchansky
Film Editor: Nicole Lubtchansky
Paintings by (and ‘as the hands of the painter’): Bernard Dufour
Production design: Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette from a story by Balzac
Produced by Martine Marignac, Maurice Tinchant
Directed by
Jacques Rivette


At the start of his fitful career Jacques Rivette made the fascinating, recommended Paris Belongs to Us. Although he never enjoyed the international success afforded François Truffaut, or even the popularity of Godard or Chabrol, Rivette was said to embody the true spirit of the French New Wave more than any of them. His 1991 La belle noiseuse takes a story that might be told as a short subject, and makes of it what might be the most thoughtful film treatise ever on the inner life of an artist. Although a full four hours in duration, we’re captivated by this drama that seems to be unspooling in real time. By not having to compress events, Rivette’s impeccable skills of observation are given free rein; the performances feel like lives being lived.

The story is adapted from a famous tale of Balzac, but changed considerably. The artists’ agent Porbus (Gilles Arbona) represents both the budding painter Nicola (David Burszstein) and the aged master Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli). He wishes to get them together to inspire Frenhofer to start working again. Now living quietly with Liz (Jane Birkin) his former main muse, the old master stopped painting ten years ago when he stalled out on a particular study, ‘La belle noiseuse,’ of which Liz was the model. Porbus’ plan is simply to let Frenhofer see David’s young girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart). All but Marianne immediately think that she is the perfect model to get the old man painting again. David thoughtlessly volunteers Marianne’s cooperation without consulting her. Furious, she nevertheless places herself at Frenhofer’s disposal. He struggles for several days to find his way back into a creative space. Liz encourages the relationship, with nobody knowing what will happen. David then chooses to become jealous, not realizing that Marianne is partly cooperating to spite him. At first a submissive object for body studies, she begins to take an active role in inspiring Frenhofer, challenging him to not be a coward, not to give up. Will he produce a masterpiece? And what will be the cost to Liz and Marianne?


Filmmakers have always been striving to express the creative energy of artists — look at the contrasting biofilms of Vincent Van Gogh. The least satisfactory approach looks for audiovisual substitutes for the act of creation. Doctor Zhivago throws giant screens of flowers and ice crystals at the audience backed by rhapsodic music, but we’re still left with shots of Omar Sharif’s poet scribbling on paper. Musical bios trivialize the act of creation, as when a waltz ‘composes itself’ for Johann Strauss while he listens to natural noises during a surrey ride. Rivette instead takes us back to the basics, showing us the supreme frustration of an artist searching for inner direction. Frenhofer just begins sketching and painting, in the hope that if he gets his eye and hands working, the ideas will come. When he does hit a groove, he worries that he may be deluding himself. It’s a serious situation. That Frenhofer lives every day in search of the creative spark makes for an odd domestic situation. His wife and muse Liz has subordinated herself to his pursuits, knowing full well that she’ll never come first in his life.

Marianne is a playful, game adventuress with an independent streak. She doesn’t mind teasing David for taking his own ‘genius’ too seriously; she has plenty of respect for artistic creativity but is in no hurry to sacrifice herself to a male ego. As she’s from French Canada she’s heard the word ‘noiseuse’ and knows it means troublemaker, nuisance. The painting sessions require Marianne to be passive and compliant, things that she definitely is not.

All of this is played out in an unhurried calm. People enter and exit rooms fully; pauses and waits occur as they would in real life. Relationships are cordial and personality issues peek through without being fully acknowledged. Porbus’s flirtations with Liz are rebuffed, but not condemned. He suffers an epileptic seizure during a meal. Frenhofer’s behavior at first seems selfish in a paternalistic sense. He drifts about the chateau as he pleases, with Liz hovering about trying to be unobtrusive. We soon realize that he’s a full-time explorer searching for direction, a sign. Liz nervously knows that her selflessness may cost her a husband, if something clicks with Marianne.

There is some indirect talk about these conflicts, but the film’s length allows the delicateness of the situation to come out naturally. Liz seems more vulnerable as Frenhofer edges toward his artistic breakthrough. Marianne at first resents being used as an object. Then, it seems that she embraces the discipline of being the visual source for an artist’s inspiration, an extreme objectification that emancipated women aren’t supposed to embrace. Yet she finds the will to transcend the passive role, to help the painter as a partner in his process.


The longest sessions in which Frenhofer and Marianne work together almost play out in real time. Rivette’s camera direction moves about the room while Frenhofer putters and adjusts equipment and sets up his easels; the slightly wide-angle lens simply observes the privileged subject matter. Frenhofer’s sketches at first seem like scribbles on paper. Rivette substitutes a real painter’s hands for those of Michel Piccoli. The hands are too youthful to be a perfect match, but it doesn’t matter.

Frenhofer expresses his initial enthusiasm by saying that he feels like he’s back at the art academy again. Thinking the obvious, we wonder if Marianne makes him feel ‘young’ and if a physical relationship is the next step. But he puts it all into the sketches and attempts at canvasses. He’s rather formal as he poses her. When he says he’s looking inside her and not simply at her, we believe him.

Michel Piccoli’s Frenhofer is as likable as a gray-haired master can be, slightly remote but direct and reasonably responsive to Liz’s comfort. If their relationship is touchy, we get the feeling that it’s Frenhofer who cannot stand discord at any level. Jane Birkin’s Liz is devoted to a highly complex man, in a relationship that others might think is slavery. She is indeed hurt when she sees that her husband is painting over the actual unfinished masterpiece she helped create, with an image of the new muse. It does seem reasonable that an artist may sometimes have to conquer the past to go forward, must destroy to create. Again, the length of the film allows for this to be more than merely dramatized, sketched, condensed into emotional climaxes. We see these people relate to each other in the long haul of everyday living.

The Nicolas character becomes something of a sidebar, as he’s revealed as a traditional male of the kind that Marianne seems to have outgrown even before the story begins. More interesting is David’s close relationship to his sister/business manager Julienne (Marianne Denicourt), yet another woman trying to express creative instincts in a world that seems to revolve around men. Likewise Porbus has a life outside the movie that we don’t know about. When Liz gently questions his priorities, he openly admits that his prime interest is in the expected Frenhofer painting he wants to buy as an investment. It’s not treated as some big revelation.


The long posing, sketching and painting scenes remind this viewer of H.G. Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso. We do indeed experience the artistic process, and not just because we’ve spent a full 2.5 hours with the artist and the model at work. Marianne ponders her differences with David and chafes against the role of servant to Frenhofer, yet she clearly feels physically fulfilled. There is a major sexual component to the work and both parties know it well, but as Liz has said Frenhofer is indeed ‘a gentleman.’ The energy of the intimate encounters is all in the work.

(spoiler, perhaps:) The synopses I’ve read of Balzac’s original conclusion make me think that Rivette and his co-writers have improved on it. Artists, the story tells us, do care about what will be thought of them after they are gone. Someone like Frenhofer would have spent his life thinking about the fates of painters that have come before: how their work was seen to taper off, how some have lasting reputations and others not. Frenhofer intuits that he may be painting his last canvas. With the quiet complicity of Liz and Marianne, both of whom know the truth, he pulls off a trick that may do nothing for his present reputation, but should cement his legacy. If we like Frenhofer it’s because he’s not egotistical in the usual way — he doesn’t care what David and Porbus think about his ‘big painting’ now, while he’s alive. Liz is happy and if Marianne seems somewhat miffed, it’s because she knows her ‘service’ has shown her only that it’s time to move on in her life, likely to something where she can exercise a little control, too.

For an audience ready to commit to something wholly different, these four hours come to an especially satisfying finish. Something honest is generated on a subject that the movies normally don’t handle well. The acting is nothing short of spectacular, with Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin and Emmanuelle Béart putting in risky performances far above what we expect to see. Jacques Rivette’s show was a big winner at Cannes, taking the Grand Jury prize but losing the Palme D’Or to Barton Fink. That’s a good movie, but it can’t hold a candle to Rivette’s achievement.


The Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray of La belle noiseuse is a real gift to film lovers. The online frame grabs I’ve seen from earlier DVDs look miserable — drab with dull colors and blurry to boot. Compared to this new restoration, they’re unwatchable. Cohen’s scan is immaculate, spotless and richly textured for both color and detail. The exceptional, flawless images make watching a pleasure. We feel and hear the scratching of Frenhofer’s pens and see the way the light plays on his model. This disc looks so good I’m considering carving out the time soon to see it again.

The presentation is broken into two parts on two Blu-ray discs. The supposedly correct 1:37 flat transfer looks fine. The nature of the picture makes us not mind the looseness of most of the compositions. To my mind the images would matte off to 1:66 quite nicely, as there’s so much head and foot room; seeing more floor and the rafters in Frenhofer’s studio is not a bad thing. Supporting the idea that a widescreen version might have been correct, is a shot where a microphone is visible at the bottom of the frame, that would not be present with a widescreen formatting.

More refined devotees of French filmmaking, painting and literature may be pleased by the audio commentary by Richard Suchenski, that indeed fills all four hours (!) of La belle noiseuse without an ounce of padding or fat, or too many lengthy gaps. The learned Mr. Suchenski has a great deal to communicate about the show, with what amounts to four or five full lectures on the Balzac connection, the adaptation, the world of Jacques Rivette and extra input on the film’s visuals in relation to famous paintings. We also get a pleasing interview with director Rivette, and a second piece with his co-writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent. The Cohen Group has really come through with this title.

A closing diversion. It’s not often that an accessible film about the nature of art and artists comes around. Back at UCLA I remember several editing lectures by our film professor Ed Brokaw, communicating his philosophy about film art. At the time few of us thought his ideas wise, or even practical. He would become emotional explaining how an Inuit scrimshaw artist would carve a perfect item from a piece of walrus ivory, and when finished throw it away into the snow. This was to illustrate the idea that the beauty of art is in its creation, not the final product.

Brokaw then talked about how an artistic reputation can become a prison, something of which Frenhofer seems aware. Brokaw said he knew a woman filmmaker that wanted to break with her previously established work to begin again in a new creative direction. She reportedly tried to buy up all the prints of her old, prize-winning films so she could destroy them. She felt that was the only way she could be reborn with a fresh start. I remember asking why she couldn’t just start a new line of films under a ‘pen name,’ as would an author.

That didn’t make Brokaw happy; I guess it was clear that I was resisting his message. The trouble started when the projector showing our editing projects, the famous ‘Gunsmoke’ scene, started chewing up various students’ 16mm cuts. When it was my turn, I stopped the projector when it began to chew mine up as well. I had just spent forty hours agonizing over every frame in that frustrating cutting exercise: it was printed on new Mylar film, which the blades on our splicers didn’t want to cut. Brokaw was furious, and announced to the class that I wasn’t a good filmmaker, because ‘Good filmmakers never blame their equipment.’

That to me defines a film theorist with set ideas. But I’ve never forgotten Professor Brokaw’s commitment to his ideas.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

La belle noiseuse
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Richard Suchenski, interviews with director Rivette, and with co-writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: 2 discs in keep case
Reviewed: May 9, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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