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Some movies are worlds that we can sink into, and "La Belle Noiseuse" is one of them. It is a four-hour movie, but not one second too long, in which the process of art and the process of life come into a fascinating conflict. There is something fundamentally sensual about the relationship between an artist and a model, not because of the nudity and other superficial things which are obvious, but because the artist is trying to capture something intimate and secret from another person, and put it on the canvas. It is possible to have sex with someone and not know them, but it is impossible to draw them well, and not know them well.
The movie is about an artist in his 60s, who has not painted for many years. In his studio is an unfinished canvas, a portrait of his wife, which leans against the wall like a rebuke for the passion that has died between them. They are still happily married, but their relationship is one of understanding, not hunger. One day a young admirer brings his girlfriend to meet the artist and his wife.
Something stirs within the older man, and he asks the girl to pose for him. She agrees, indifferently, and as he begins his portrait a subtle dance of seduction begins.
To understand the dynamic, you will have to picture the actors. The artist is played by Michel Piccoli, veteran of dozens of important French movies, he of the intimidating bald forehead, the vast eyebrows, the face of an aging satyr. The young woman is played by Emmanuelle Beart ("Manon of the Spring"), whose beauty may come from heaven but whose intelligence is all her own. Watching her here, we realize that it would not have been enough simply to cast a beautiful woman in the role, for the artist is entrapped by her mind, not her appearance. The artist's wife is played by Jane Birkin (the daughter in "Daddy Nostalgia"), who knows her husband well enough to warn Beart against him, but not well enough to warn herself.
The sittings begin, and the artistic process takes over. And the film's director, Jacques Rivette, takes a big risk, which works brilliantly. He shows the preliminary sketches, the pencil drawings, charcoals and watercolor washes, in great detail. The camera looks over the shoulder of the artist and regards his hand as he draws.
Sometimes the camera is on the hand for four or five minutes at a time. This may sound boring. It is more thrilling than a car chase.
We see a human being taking shape before us. And as the artist tries one approach and then another, we see the process of his mind at work.
It is said that artistic processes take place on the right side of the brain, the side that is liberated from mundane considerations like the passage of time. I know for myself that when I draw, I drop out of time and lose all consciousness of its passing.
I even fail to hear people who are talking to me, because the verbal side of my mind is not engaged. Most films are a contest between the right and left brains, in which dialogue and plot struggle to make sense, while picture, mood, music and emotion struggle toward a reverie state. In "La Belle Noiseuse," the right side, the artistic side, of the viewer's mind is given the freedom to take over, and as the artist draws, something curious happens. We became the artist ourselves, in a way, looking at the model, taking up the tools, plunging into the preliminary drawings.
The artist and his model do not get along very well. He is almost sadistic in his treatment of her, addressing her curtly, asking her to assume uncomfortable poses, keeping an impolite distance between her concerns and his own. She hates him. He does not care. It is a battle of the wills.
But Jacques Rivette is an old and wise man, and so this movie doesn't develop along simplistic lines in which love soon rears its inquisitive head. Here is where Beart's intelligence comes in - hers, and her character's. The battle between the two people becomes one of imagination, a chess game of the emotions, in which small moves can have great consequences.
You may think you can guess what will happen. The artist will fall in love with his model. The wife and the boyfriend will be jealous. There will be sex scenes. Perhaps to some degree you are right. To a much larger degree, however, "La Belle Noiseuse" will surprise you, because this is not a movie that limits its curiosity to the question of where everybody's genitals will turn up.
The reason the movie benefits from its length is twofold.
First, Rivette takes all of the time he needs to show the actual physical process of drawing. These passages are surprisingly tactile; we hear the whisper of the pencil on the paper, the scratch of the drawing pen, and we see that drawing is a physical process, not, as some people fancy, an exercise in inspiration. Second, having given the artist time to discover his model on his canvas, Rivette then gives himself the time to discover his own models. While the artist and model in the film are investigating one another, Rivette stands at his own canvas and draws both of them.