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  • Ravi Swami

"La Belle Noiseuse" - Dir: Jacques Rivette, 1991

Could Jacques Rivette's 1991 film be the best film ever, possibly the *only* film ever on the process of drawing from life?....possibly.

I approached the film - currently available on Apple+ TV - with something like trepidation though I'd been wanting to watch it for a while, wondering if it was just an excuse for voyeuristic "posh porn" since it features the very lovely Emmanuelle Béart playing the role of a young woman who is persuaded by her aspiring artist boyfriend to pose naked for an older artist played by Michel Piccoli, whose work he admires, effectively trading her off in order to get ahead in his career, though she is by no means a professional model.

Much of the story takes place in a barn converted into an artists' studio in Piccoli's idyllic country home that is presided over by his wife and former muse, played by Jane Birkin, who is more than welcoming to Béart's "Marianne" since her aging husband has lost his mojo and wants to revisit a career obsession - a painting of "La Belle Noiseuse", a legendary courtesan, a name roughly translated as "The Beautiful Troublemaker" - and Marianne is offered up as a potential subject to reignite his flagging artistic career.

A new 4k remastering of the film, highlighting the French countryside in mid-summer, looks stunning and adds to the sense that the very protracted scenes involving the life-drawing process feel very present - in fact, at a running time of almost 4 hours, there are points in the film that feel very like an actual life-drawing session as Rivette focusses on Piccoli's (in reality the hand of real-life artist Bernard Dufour) hand as he scratches away in a frustrated fashion with a dip pen before taking the plunge on large canvases, in an attempt to capture the essence of his subject.

It's hard to avoid the sense that this is a film about the "male gaze" aspect of life-drawing and as the artist explores his subject you do wonder if this is just a prelude to the seduction of Marianne by Piccoli's "Édouard Frenhofer", but that moment never comes because Marianne is determined that it should never happen, and is gripped by an intense rage at the indignity and sense of betrayal by her boyfriend but is at the same time curious of the outcome, combining a feeling that the artist is an old man who just wants to see the body of a young woman, with an intent to burst Frenhofer's bubble of artistic pretensions, something that provokes an outburst of laughter from Marianne (crying or laughing, we are never entirely sure) at his frustrated attempts at capturing the essence of "La Belle Noiseuse" and that causes him to storm off temporarily.

Marianne's stance leads to the inevitable conclusion, hinted at in several exchanges between Frenhofer and Birkin's "Liz", that she is no mere puppet to be manipulated in the interests of Frenhofer's artistic ambitions - there are several scenes where Piccoli literally manipulates Marianne's body into increasingly contorted and uncomfortable poses and these are quite uncomfortable to watch let alone making you wonder if the role itself was challenging for Béart, requiring her to hold a pose during long takes, and the film concludes with Marianne realising that up to that point she has been in the thrall of men and can no longer accept simply being moved around like a piece of furniture to suit their whims.

This new found realisation for Béart's character is at the core of the film and at the end she decides her already troubled relationship with her boyfriend "Nicolas" (David Bursztein) is over and must lead her to taking control over her life and choices.

But it's not just Béart's film since Piccoli delivers a tremendous late-career performance as "Frenhofer" that feels very authentic in terms of the process of drawing and painting even if the close-ups were performed by an actual artist - for example, an early scene where he prepares and lays out his tools is played out in real-time.

The sense that the film exploits the erotic is dispelled early on though I have to admit that if I'd watched the film when younger I might possibly have been distracted by the beautiful body and face of the naked Béart as "Marianne", but this quickly evaporates and the experience of watching the very technical process of life-drawing as an observer suddenly feels very like the very first time I experienced it on my first day at art college when we were led as students into a similar large studio to be confronted by a completely naked middle-aged woman on a dais and instructed t0 draw her without any foreknowledge or preparation, an experience I would recommend wholeheartedly to anyone choosing to embark on a career in the arts, once you get past the embarrassed giggles.

This film would seem an appropriate entry under the title of "lockdown cinema" even if that has passed, since I divided the last 2 years between watching films and revisiting life-drawing in it's online form after a long time, even though I had actually re-started life-drawing "for real", as it were, in 2019 - there is the lingering sense that as a man, you are watching naked women (and men) of all ages, online in order to draw them but the contract between artist and subject is wholly different due in part to the online nature of the process and the fact that it was a group activity involving artists from around the globe sharing and collaborating with the subjects and other artists rather than an onerous and private one as depicted in the film and the subjects are clearly in control of their lives and decisions over how they choose to depict their own bodies, and hence demand respect for what must be a very difficult position to put yourself in and that comes with a sense of vulnerability.

The film also reminded me of a brief stint as an extra just last year on an NFTS (the U.K National Film & Television School) film about the very subject of life drawing, in this case about the choice to become a life-model by a woman past middle age, and was set coincidentally in a church hall converted into an arts centre, since in the film Frenhofer and Liz' home is a converted church.

Does the film inspire the viewer to try their hand at life-drawing ? - it gets close to showing that it is a tortuous process when in practice it isn't and I think Frenhofer is based to some extent on Picasso, famous for bedding his models before moving on to the next, which unfairly lends the process a degree of exploitation.

At the film's conclusion Frenhofer has a sudden epiphany, his mental block suddenly lifted after years of putting down his charcoal sticks and paintbrushes and he finally completes the painting to his satisfaction, in the process defiling a canvas on which he had painted Liz as "The Noiseuse" earlier and ultimately only he, his young daughter, Liz and Marianne see the completed work, so for the viewer there is no "Dorian Gray" moment though my suspicion is that like Oscar Wilde's creation, the painting is an ugly reflection of Frenhofer's own internal turmoil, revealed in a brief glimpse of a painted foot surrounded by bloody red paint.

Disgusted and ashamed with the result, he bricks it up in an alcove in the corner of his studio with the help of his daughter, who is too young to fully appreciate or be critical of the work, and then rushes off an anodyne substitute overnight for his patron, the art gallery owner and former lover of his wife, "Porbus" (Gilles Arbona), much to disgust of both Liz and Marianne.

To round off, for some, though there is the appeal of seeing a naked Emmanuelle Béart, there is nothing especially erotic about the film at all, instead it is a fairly accurate representation of life-drawing and the artistic process, and any such frisson soon wears off as the plot gets into its stride.

"La Belle Noiseuse", Dir: Jacques Rivette, 1991

Apple+ TV.

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