La Belle Noiseuse – Jaques Rivette toys with artistic temperament.

In the hands of such a deft film maker as Jaques Rivette, one assumes every feeling, every idea existent during the film was planted there by the master. Given this assumption and its likely accuracy, what is the most surprising about La Belle Noiseuse is the conflicting inner response to the artists methods experienced while watching the film. You really swing between profound insight and didactic mystique-of-the-artist bullshit. Its all in the set up and the surrounding conversation. The painter Frenhoffer (Michel Piccoli) is not introduced for a while into the film, though he is spoken of in hushed tones. The horror his wife Liz (Jane Birkin) experienced in the painting of the first picture is hinted at repeatedly and we see snippets of it in the relationship between Fernhoffer and Marianne, his new model (Emmanuelle Béart) but for the most part it remains an enigma. The love affair between Marianne and her artists boyfriend Nicolas (David Bursztein) is talked about between Nicolas and his sister, but is barely played out in front of us. The only thing that is painstakingly presented to us, is the artists hands and the crushing, annihilating brushstrokes as he seeks to extract teh soul from his model. The film centres around these scenes and everything else is sublimated to it. This gives one the impression of the painstaking importance of the creation of art as well as the soul crushing self-importance the artist takes on in order to create.

A famous reclusive painter, Frenhofer (Piccoli), lives quietly with his wife and former model (Birkin) in a large château in rural Languedoc-Roussillon. When a young artist visits him with his girlfriend Marianne (Béart), Frenhofer is inspired to commence work once more on a painting he long ago abandoned – La Belle Noiseuse – using Marianne as his model. La belle noiseuse begins, as it ends, like a bantering 18th-century French comedy, something along the lines of Marivaux. At a village inn in the south of France, near Montpellier, a young painter (David Bursztein) sits sketching a couple of English tourists at a nearby table. A young woman (Béart) sneaks out of an upstairs room to snap his picture, and then sits down at his table and demands 10,000 francs for the photograph. It soon emerges that they’re lovers, Nicolas and Marianne, playfully pretending to be strangers. They’re awaiting the arrival of Porbus (Gilles Arbona), an art dealer who is about to introduce them to Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), a once-famous and long-inactive painter whom Nicolas admires and who lives nearby with his wife and former model Liz (Jane Birkin) in a rambling 18th-century chateau.

The film is largely about the rebirth of creativity and the relationship between the artist and his subject. Emmanuelle Béart is naked for the bulk of the film, which is at first titillating, but as the complexity of her role in sitting for the great painter and the domination of her soul by the artist begin to take a grip on the film we see her as subject rather than object. A key moment occurs in the film when Fernhoffer, who has been setting Marianne in more and more difficult poses to maintain, cries out “I don’t care about breasts and seductions” and it is around this point we have reached that same stage. Jaques Rivette holds our hand (magnificently) through the transition so that toward the end of the film, it is when Marianne is dressed that we are reminded she is beautiful. Fernhoffer wants to break her apart, he wants to extract the soul from inside her, and he does this through an exhausting relentless routine coupled with forcing her to hold poses that twist her body into odd shapes and making her to hold the poses for hours.  the process reminded me of a BDSM relationship between the Master and the submissive, the Master setting more complex tasks so eventually the submissive is “forced” to relinquish all the baggage used as a facade between her and the world. A successful submissive will relinquish the grip of fear over him/herself so that a powerful inner force can emerge.  This is the thing Fernhoffer calls the soul – he wants to extract the soul of Marianne. As she cares less and less about what ways he twists and turns her, as she lets her barriers fall from the exhaustion of holding them up, her true self emerges.

For Marianne, an internal struggle has arisen between remaining a slave to Frenhofer’s vision by assuming the contorted positions he requests and striking out on her own. “Let me find my own place, my own way of moving,” she insists somewhat later, during the third hour, but her spirit of rebellion is there virtually from the beginning. Frenhofer’s struggle is a matter of differentiating will from necessity: “When I was a kid, I used to pull my toys to pieces,” he comments after placing her into a particularly difficult pose. But after he declares a little later, “I want the invisible,” he quickly corrects himself: “No, that’s not it. It’s not I who wants it, it’s the work.” Finally, he settles on a kind of mystic compromise: “It’s the line, the stroke. Nobody knows what a stroke is. And I’m after it.”

Unwilling to settle for anything other than a masterpiece, Frenhoffer’s every brush stroke cuts like a knife; the creation of the titular portrait is nothing less than a slow-burning and violent act of transference, the extraction of a soul to canvas—and one, fittingly, to which we never bear final witness. But it is all-too-clear, particularly in several on-the-nose expository moments, that La Belle Noiseuse began life as a joke, one extending from a character’s monologue in Rivette’s prior film Gang of Four. Marianne’s relationship with her boyfriend Nicolas (David Bursztein) is given an illusory weight in the film’s first scene where they act out a mock-angry roundelay for the benefit of two American tourists.  Things are not always what they seem, Rivette seems to say. We are all performers, and art—that cruel mistress—sets us achingly, perhaps unwillingly free.

For most of the film’s second hour, Frenhofer executes a series of tentative sketches using both pen and brushes. Here’s where Rivette’s focus on duration and process comes in, making all the essential facts of the artist’s work — the scratch of pen against paper, the hesitations and decisions of hand and brush, the progress and revision of a design taking shape — as palpable as the sense of time and place was during the first hour. (Here and throughout the remainder of the film, the hand we see in close-up belongs to a real artist, Bernard Dufour, but the matching is done so well that the effect never looks contrived.) While Rivette employs real time whenever it’s appropriate to his design, it would be quite wrong to assume that he simply lets the camera run on in the manner of Warhol; jump cuts are as essential to his sense of rhythm as long takes, and he uses both with equal judiciousness. Over the course of the film, the identity of every major character becomes redefined by the masterpiece in progress.

The best scene in the film features neither nudity nor painting but a confrontational dialogue between Liz and Frenhofer in their adjoining bedrooms and on a connecting terrace in the early hours of the morning. (The terrace, perhaps not coincidentally, recalls the ramparts where life-and-death struggles are waged in Norôit.) Rivette’s musical sense of mise en scène has never been more masterful or functional in charting both the literal movements of a couple and the various stations of their “passion” (in both the carnal and Christian senses of the word). This is the scene that establishes the reasons for Frenhofer’s choice of life over art.

For spectators unfamiliar with Rivette, La belle noiseuse provides an ideal introduction, requiring no pointers or background material. But it’s also an unusually personal and autobiographical work — even a testament of sorts — from a man whose life is so hermetic that it scarcely seems to exist at all apart from his activities as a filmgoer and filmmaker. In Claire Denis’ excellent two-hour documentary about Rivette, Bulle Ogier, the actress he has worked with most often  is asked at one point if Rivette regards her as a friend. She replies, quite plausibly, that Rivette has no friends, at least in any ordinary sense.  I can only assume she’s right; while people say one can speak to him for hours about film and other arts, his timidity and his monastic air are so absolute that he calls to mind the ravaged, semimad poet Antonin Artaud.

“I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved,” Freud once wrote in a letter. Similarly, it would be fair to say that Rivette regards the process of making art as one in which many more people are involved than simply artist and model. That idea corresponds, in any case, to his profoundly collaborative notion of his own art. And the playful comic charades that frame Rivette’s dark meditation suggest that the life he is opting for is merely a form of protection and survival — giggles to hold back the maelstrom of nightmarish possibilities that masterpieces, including this one, unleash.