If one hobbyhorse races a few strides ahead of others in the films of Jacques Rivette, that hobbyhorse is probably his conspicuous and ongoing obsession with form. From the outset in his first feature, Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1961), Rivette’s exploration of form manifests in two very distinct channels that recur throughout his oeuvre: 1) in an experiment with the form of traditional narrative; and 2) in a portrait of a theatre director and actors trying to breathe life into the production of a play. In Paris Belongs to Us, Anne (Betty Schneider) complains to theatre director Gerard (Giani Esposito) that Shakespeare’s Pericles, in which she has been offered the part of Marina, is fragmented. Gerard tells Anne that the reason he wants to stage Pericles is precisely because it is supposed to be “unplayable”. “It’s shreds and patches,” he says, in a kind of reverie. This in itself could be a fitting description of most of Rivette’s narrative undertakings – plots characterised by a disjointedness and improbability that somehow, as though through magic, are given the illusion of a totality. “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now,” said Samuel Beckett.1 Rivette didn’t just overcome this struggle – he revelled in it. And, being thoroughly modern, he transformed it into his primary subject matter.
In Rivette’s 1991 film La Belle Noiseuse, we are met with these customary formal preoccupations, although of course here they possess their own unique treatment. The striking horns and strings playing during the production credits are from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Agon. The music draws inspiration from 17th-century dances of the French court, while the title alludes to classical Greek culture; the piece echoes themes prominent in the film in its associations with contraries in drama and competitive struggle. But while it draws inspiration from the past, this music sounds eerie somehow, as Stravinsky bends and deconstructs rhythms and tonality of the common-practice era. This combination of influences from the past with new structural perspectives makes Stravinsky a spiritual twin to Rivette, and Agon a fitting choice of score. There are further formal acknowledgements: for this film, Rivette adapted material from both Honoré de Balzac and Henry James, two of his favourite inspirations. And note how the font of Rivette’s intertitles, used here and in almost all of his films, looks like it was taken out of a 19th-century novel.
At the film’s opening, artist Nicolas (David Bursztein) and his girlfriend, Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), go with their friend Porbus (Gilles Arbona) to meet the great aging painter Édouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) and his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin). Frenhofer has not worked for many years, and has fallen into a state of semi-obscurity.
When showing his guests his atelier, which used to be a barn, he complains of one painting Nicolas admires: “If I go the whole way there’s blood on the canvas. On La Belle Noiseuse, you see blood.” Intrigued, Nicolas expresses a desire to know more about La Belle Noiseuse. Frenhofer explains that it’s a name taken from a 17th-century courtesan. Liz says that it is herself, in a teasing way, and Frenhofer agrees. Marianne says that she is familiar with the term noiseuse from Quebec and that it means “nuts”, as in “crazy”. She speaks from the stairs – and, in a hint of foreshadowing, her face is concealed in a black block of shadow. “A pain in the arse!” Frenhofer adds.
After dinner, while the men are discussing painting and the women in the kitchen discussing womanly things, Porbus suggests to Frenhofer that he might want to paint La Belle Noiseuse. “It was Liz, and now it’s too late,” laments Frenhofer. “Why not Marianne?” suggests Porbus. After little discussion, and without consulting Marianne herself, Nicolas says that she will pose. When Nicolas later tells her of his offer, Marianne says, furious, “You sold my arse.” Exiting the bath draped in a towel and changing behind a screen, it seems that she is not even comfortable being naked in front of her own lover.
Despite her irritation, Marianne goes to Frenhofer’s early the next morning. It already appears hot and sunny, and, as in many outdoor scenes throughout the film, bird and insect sounds are prominent. By contrast, the studio is very silent, cool and dark, attributes associated historically with the feminine and mysterious. Entering the studio, we watch Frenhofer prepare his workspace as any artist would. Once everything is in place, there is a shot of the artist at his table in three-quarter view from the back. He leafs through his book, getting pen and ink ready for sketching, and the camera swings in an arc, ever so slowly, into another three-quarter view from the front. This novel 90-degree arc sets the tone for the scenes in the studio. In real time, Rivette establishes a sense of veracity in the artistic process unfolding on screen that would hardly be possible through other methods. And, indeed, because the hand we see sketching belongs to real-life artist Bernard Dufour, parts of La Belle Noiseuse – much like the long improvisational sequences carried out by actors in Rivette’s earlier 13-hour masterpiece Out 1: noli me tangere (1971) – have an affinity with observational cinema. This artistic documentation is, at the same time, enmeshed in a film that is otherwise fictive; along with it being a very slow film, painfully slow at times, this is what is avant-garde about La Belle Noiseuse. You won’t find any disorienting fast cuts, switches in film stock or genre mashups here, as are present in some other Rivette films.
Right from the outset, Frenhofer asks Marianne to sit with her shoulders thrust backwards in an unnatural way, at once accentuating her breasts and making her look obstinate. In these first sketches, she is defaced with black ink, a common visual motif. She is soon asked to disrobe, and, hereafter, much of the film pivots around her nudity. Béart’s gestures and expressions are metamorphic, sometimes shocking. It is interesting to contrast her (equally great) performance to Birkin’s: although Marianne’s character represents something hidden and ineffable, Béart’s performance is brash, reliant on the body; the strength of Birkin’s characterisation as the suffering artist’s wife, in contrast, is communicated through the utmost subtlety of gesture and expression. The theatrical struggles that are documented in so many of Rivette’s works here seem to move naturally into the realm of the painter’s atelier. While creative protagonists are common enough in film, mark how this switch in focus is less of a leap than it would be from, say, characters who write literature or compose music. While theatre is not often regarded as a visual art, it is of course heavily contingent upon the look of sets, blocking of actors and, from there, the gestures and expressions of those actors in space and in relation to one another. When viewing La Belle Noiseuse in the context of Rivette’s other works, we see that Marianne, responding to Frenhofer’s need to find that perfect expression and gesture to suit his needs, is another kind of actor; and Frenhofer, a sort of director. And, naturally, both theatre and painting are mere conduits – each a step removed biographically, perhaps to loan a sense of perspective – for Rivette to explore and express his own struggle to create and to bring out the very best performances in his actors.
Over the next few hours of the film, we watch the artist bend Marianne’s body as though she were so much stubborn plasticine. The pain and irritation of the model are very tangible at times, as is the pain of the artistic struggle, evoked by the patience necessary in viewing its presentation in real time. Pens and chalk scrape slowly, loudly against paper and canvas in enhanced sound – much, one might note, like the insect noise outside that sounds like crickets bowing their legs, and that, like Frenhofer’s assiduous scraping, might very well have a sexual object and origin.
And what is the object of Frenhofer’s desire? “La Belle Noiseuse”, of course, who exists so perfectly and yet does not exist. At their first meeting, Frenhofer asks Marianne if she would mind if Nicolas loved painting more than her, and, later, Liz says that she feels Marianne needs to be protected from Frenhofer – precisely because he cares about painting more than people.
As elusive as “La Belle Noiseuse” is to Frenhofer, he definitely seems to know what she is not, speaking of her as though preformed, a creature out of mythology. It is as though, when contorting his model’s body on floor, stool or bench, one arm or leg might serve as a lever – and, in bending it, some metaphysical curtain that had hitherto obscured his sight might rise. And, there, “La Belle Noiseuse” might finally be revealed, in all of her horrid beauty, instantly and totally, for Frenhofer and all the world to see.
Of course, if “La Belle Noiseuse” already exists, then Frenhofer himself is simply a tool to find her. Images of formlessness recur throughout the film – not only in Marianne’s body, which at times seems like the darkness itself made plastic, but also in the story Frenhofer relates about the sculptor Rubek, who “could have been great” but died in an avalanche with his only model. A similar image is echoed by Liz who, when speaking to Nicolas’ sister, Julienne (Marianne Denicourt), says that Marianne needs to be protected from the final painting. She says that, when one is drowning, their whole life flashes before their eyes, and that Frenhofer is trying to capture a whole life in a painting – a painting that is also shameless. Marianne, she believes, needs to be protected from drowning. But is Liz the one who needs protection? Is Marianne herself a sea or an avalanche? These are images of the feminine, to be sure, but Frenhofer too feels he has access to this kind of void. “I want the invisible,” he says. “No, it’s not that … I want… it’s not me who wants … it’s … it’s the line, the stroke. Nobody knows what a stroke is. And I’m after it. I’m running, I’m running … Where am I going? To the sky? Why not. Why wouldn’t a stroke burst the sky?” Frenhofer wants his inspiration to be nothing other than self-annihilation, a possession by the divine powers Plato called enthousiasmos, dubbed furor poeticus by later writers. The Greek enthousiasmos, the root of our word “enthusiasm”, means “full of God” [ἔνθεος / éntheos]; so E.N. Tigerstedt tells us in his exploration of the subject.2 This is a matter of some debate; although Plato mentions such possessions as commonplace in the creator – giving them a similar prophetic role to the Pythia – it seems that there is little historical evidence that this was a commonly held belief. So, Frenhofer, mad, enraged and wanting to be taken into the sky, is something so primitive as to possibly be pre-Socratic, even pre-Homeric, his belief in possession by gods being a shamanic one. These images of annihilation are also directed towards Marianne: “I want everything … the blood, the fire, the ice … all that’s inside your body. I’ll take it all. I’ll get it out of you and put it into this frame.” If modern painting is about “push and pull”, to use a phrase by artist and teacher Hans Hofmann,3 it seems that, through his working methods, Frenhofer could push and pull his models right out of existence as part of his deranged quest.
And, of course, Frenhofer’s is not the only portrait of the primitive here. Marianne, at times, also looks ancient, thanks to Béart’s abilities as contortionist and her variable, mask-like expressions. “Your stare disturbs me,” says Frenhofer, and then draws perfect circles for eyes. They are the eyes of a harpy, the gaze at times cruel and inscrutable. This harpyish quality is underscored by the ultimate pose Frenhofer has Marianne hold, her hand bent into a claw. It is similar to Liz’s hand in the painting Frenhofer now paints over with Marianne’s image, the original turned sideways. “You put some buttocks in place of my face,” hisses Liz, infuriated. And, given the many images of defacing throughout the film – the last in heavily thatched black chalk making the face appear sex-like (recalling René Magritte’s 1934 painting Le viol (The Rape) where a woman’s facial features are replaced by pubic hair and breasts) – this was perhaps what he had in mind for the painting all along. It is also a fitting statement of course on how many artists have traditionally viewed their models. And we see in the portrait of Liz, no longer model but wife, a domestic role similar to that carried out by servants of the household.
Other artworks evoked by Marianne’s poses are Jean Auguste Dominique Ingre’s famous 1814 painting La Grande Odalisque and Auguste Rodin’s Danaïd in marble – and perhaps, most of all, the works of Pablo Picasso, at the times when Béart’s body is so twisted as to almost look composed of parts from separate bodies (indeed, in one of his rages, Frenhofer reveals that he enjoyed tearing apart dolls as a child). There is one genius shot in which there is a perfect mimesis of Rodin’s sculpture; and then, as the camera moves in an arc around Marianne’s body, it suddenly morphs into looking like a Picasso. In these most severe poses, Béart’s beauty, which of course can look quite gentle and ideal at times, recalls not only the harpy but also the sphinx (or other female hybrid creatures). One room in Frenhofer’s house is even called the “chimaera” room, perhaps an allusion to the aesthetic effect Rivette intended in La Belle Noiseuse: not just in the model and paintings in themselves, but also in the filmmaker’s typical exploitation of contraries and disparate elements – those “shreds and patches” that he loves so well. And, of course, seeing only a flash of red at the bottom of the painting before it’s buried in the wall, our final reaction to the masterpiece is also necessarily disparate and metamorphic. While Rivette’s narrative treatment often involves suspending and transforming plot to give an effect similar to Victorian serializations, in this film the feeling of mystery revolves around suspending and obscuring knowledge of the nature of “La Belle Noiseuse”. “If creation is not magic, the outcome cannot be magic,” says Hofmann of his working methods in “Search for the Real”.4 In depicting how the painting is both hidden and revealed, Rivette, as he often does, brings us into a magical universe. We believe in the magic in Rivette’s films because Rivette himself believed in their magic while he was making them. “It’s all your fault. You sought the sublime,” says Terry (Françoise Prévost) to Anne at the end of Paris Belongs to Us: the painting in La Belle Noiseuse, a “black hole” of terror and beauty, is perhaps Rivette’s most successful portrayal of the the search for and experience of the sublime. We do not know what the painting looks like – but we do know at the very least that it is divinely bestowed, hidden, horrible, beautiful and incomprehensible all at once: a chimaera flown out of a myth, buried in a wall.
- Samuel Beckett in Tom Driver, “Beckett by the Madeleine,” Columbia University Forum (Summer 1961). Reprinted in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman, eds (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 219. ↩
- E.N. Tigerstedt, “Furor Poeticus: Poetic Inspiration in Greek Literature Before Democritus and Plato,” Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 31 no. 2 (April–June 1970): pp. 163–78. One might note that Tigerstedt’s scepticism might be a bit extreme. ↩
- See Hans Hofmann, “Search for the Real” in Search for the Real and Other Essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1983, sixth printing). ↩
- ibid., p. 40. It is interesting to note in Hofmann’s writings not only this association of magic with art, and in such a thoughtful context, but also how he at times expresses ideas akin to shamanistic beliefs – not just associated with the creator, but within the plastic medium itself, which he refers to as an empty “carrier” of metaphysical forces. ↩