Inspired by Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece,” Jacques Rivette’s four-hour La belle noiseuse is about creative process and the competing claims on an artist of his calling and the sensitivities of the other persons in his life. The artist is Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli, excellent), who hasn’t painted in a decade, having given up on completing “La belle noiseuse,” the portrait for which the woman to whom he is now married, Liz, modeled. When Nicolas, a young admirer, at dinner offers his girlfriend, Marianne, as a fresh model, Frenhofer seizes the opportunity to paint again and complete “La belle noiseuse.” Frenhofer’s artistic pursuit ends up running roughshod over the feelings of his wife, Marianne and Nicolas.
There are several wonderful passages, one of which is stunning: during their first session together in his studio, Frenhofer’s initial sketches of Marianne. Very little conversation passes between them (Marianne is outraged that her boyfriend pressed this arrangement without first asking her), and the sound most notably interrupting the silence is an unpleasant one: the scratch and scrape of pen on paper. This passage, among Rivette’s most mesmerizing ones, anticipates by one year Victor Erice’s masterpiece, Dream of Light, which documents Spanish painter Antonio López García at work.
On the whole, however, this is not one of Rivette’s better films, much less one of his great ones. Everything to do with the sketching and painting fascinates; but the trite melodrama with which it is surrounded, thin material that is stretched ever thinner, is dubious. Jealous fits, temper outbursts, apologies abound; suppressed feelings tumble out.
Moreover, I scarcely know what to make of Nicolas’s relationship with Julienne, his “sister.”
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