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‘La Belle Noiseuse’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 21, 1992

"La Belle Noiseuse" blithely ignores the passage of time. In fact, it revels in time. This French movie about the search for beauty, the crumbling of relationships and the creative process is a daunting four hours long. You may feel like Rip Van Winkle when you step out of the theater. But you'll gain something too, the sense that you've been through an experience firsthand.

Obviously this movie, directed by Jacques Rivette, is not for impatient beeper-toters, parents with limited babysitting resources or people for whom an artistic statement means wearing your baseball cap backwards. It's for cineastes and Francophiles. Actually, it's also for those who appreciate the beauty of the nude female form -- specifically Emmanuelle Beart's. Aha! Suddenly we're talking about a lot of people.

"Noiseuse," however, is not about titillation. When young artist David Burszstein and girlfriend Beart visit veteran painter Michel Piccoli, it is initially for the young painter to pay his respects to the older artist. The visit is about to become something else. Piccoli hasn't painted in 10 years; he's all dried up. The last thing he did was an aborted project, called "La Belle Noiseuse," for which his wife Jane Birkin posed.

The painting's title is Canadian-French slang for a woman who drives men to distraction. Beart, who has often been accused of having this quality, is familiar with the term. This intrigues Piccoli. When Bursztein cavalierly (and in Beart's absence) offers his girlfriend as a model, Piccoli is ready to paint again.

Beart is upset at being traded like horse flesh. But to spite Bursztein and out of curiosity, she does pose for Piccoli. She soon finds out this won't be one sitting. Piccoli needs to make countless, preliminary sketches and paintings before starting the actual picture. He must also satisfy himself that he has found Beart at her most quintessential pose.

He becomes almost brutal, as he rearranges, pushes and prods her body into awkward, demanding poses. She becomes equally aggressive. She's curious about his past, the former models he hired and why Piccoli's attempt to paint Birkin failed. Their initial encounter of mutual embarrassment has now become a battle of wills and a revelation of fears. To their respective mates' chagrin, the painter and the model have also become part of a mutual world that excludes everyone else.

What's good about the film is the sense of real evolution, of believable character change, instead of the Speedy Gonzalez transformations movie characters usually experience. What's also good is a realistic feel for the act of creation. Director Rivette leaves the camera running as Piccoli (actually, the hand of artist Bernard Dufour) dips his pen, scratches out primitive lines, smears a blob of paint on the paper, scratches more lines. You're privy to the process of art -- not its romantic image, but the mundane, mind-wearying chore of it all.

LA BELLE NOISEUSE (Unrated) — In French with subtitles.

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