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‘La Belle Noiseuse’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 21, 1992

Time after countless time, the artist traces his model's nude image onto paper, stealing quick, almost furtive glances over his shoulder to guide his line. The eye directs and the hand follows, searching through one pose and then another for the essence of his subject, searching for some point beyond himself, beyond his model, beyond the physical and into the metaphysical.

The artist calls it "the famous point of no return," and it's been years since Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), the painter hero of Jacques Rivette's rigorously sensual "La Belle Noiseuse," has felt the pull of its gravitational field. Living in the French country mansion he shares with his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), Frenhofer has put down his brushes. To be great, he says, a painting must have blood in it, and he has lost the courage -- and the feel for the jugular -- that an artist must use to feed his work. Potbellied and gray, he's spent, too tired for the artistic wars.

War, in Rivette's view, is just what it is. And in "La Belle Noiseuse," its gory battles are waged everywhere, in and out of the artist's atelier. For 10 years, Frenhofer has lain fallow -- ever since he abandoned his last painting, a nude study of his wife titled "La Belle Noiseuse." Then, when Nicolas (David Burszstein), a gifted young painter on the cusp of major acclaim, makes a pilgrimage to the older artist's home, Frenhofer meets Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart), Nicolas's tauntingly beautiful girlfriend. Perhaps, it's suggested, if Marianne would model for him, she might bring the great artist back to life. Perhaps, Frenhofer replies.

No one, of course, has asked for Marianne's opinion, and she's not happy in the least to be offered up as meat for Frenhofer's art. But to oblige her boyfriend, Marianne surrenders and, the next morning, slouches toward Frenhofer's studio, a resigned virgin moving toward the moment of her sacrifice.

The ensuing encounter is a kind of mythic dance between the hunter and the hunted, and there is a primal sexual electricity in it. Rivette's ideas about the act of creation aren't as deep as they might first appear -- even when explored at a length of nearly four hours. But Rivette's unstinting attention to emotional detail saves "La Belle Noiseuse" from being an exercise in tony banality. If a great work must have blood in it, then Rivette touches greatness. Sex, as much as art, is the battleground here, and in Frenhofer's studio the balance of power constantly shifts between the combatants. And Rivette doesn't spare us the emotional violence. The sight of Beart's exposed body is a caress, especially in the muted light of the artist's studio, but as Frenhofer makes his rough sketches, the scratching of his pen as he cuts his line into the paper is a savage affront, like the sound of a fingernail being raked across a blackboard.

Beart gives a daring, proud performance, and while Marianne is never quite sympathetic, she does earn our respect with the way she puts herself on the line. As Frenhofer, Piccoli is at his most imposing here, and, conversely, his most pathetic. Frenhofer's motive, of course, is revenge. Loosely translated, "La Belle Noiseuse" means "the beautiful nut"; its subject is a woman who drives men to distraction. And what the aging artist puts onto the canvas has less to do with Marianne -- or Liz, who was his first model for the work, and whose image he paints over -- than with his hatred for the power that women have had over him, for his dependence on them and the way they've eaten away at his talent.

As his wife and former model, Liz is the artist's accomplice in this crime against Marianne, and, at the same time, the ultimate victim. Having been broken down herself, she leads the younger, still-ripe Marianne into the artist's torture chamber, knowing full well the psychic damage that will be done. Birkin's performance may be the movie's most compelling; she's a dried-up, useless thing, who, though once the wellspring of her husband's art, is now left to torment herself over having lost her power to inspire him. But dramatically, Birkin's scenes with Piccoli don't have the elemental charge that those between the artist and his new model have. They're intellectualized, while the studio scenes are played out in the flesh.

The agony of creation is Rivette's bottom line here. And, at this length, the movie forces us to feel some of that pain in our own bodies. The tedium we experience when Frenhofer is struggling to "see" Marianne may exact its price, but it's always to the point. In being shown how an artist nurtures an idea from inception to completion, we feel that Rivette has presented us with something rare and essential. The underlying ideas may be a little droopy, but they're staged in such exacting, private terms that they are redeemed.

"La Belle Noiseuse" is unrated but contains nudity.

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