Most people would roll their eyes at the mention of a four-hour French film about painting. And La Belle Noiseuse has scenes that go for several minutes without dialogue or music, just two people working and talking in a room.  And yet, these quiet moments make up one of the engaging experiences I’ve had watching the process of an artistic mind at work.  But that’s no surprise as it comes from Jacques Rivette, who was a founding member of the French New Wave (in fact, Francois Truffaut once credited Rivette as the main reason why the French New Wave came into being). La Belle Noiseuse may be unconventional, but it’s nothing less than brilliant. 

The Players:

  • Director: Jacques Rivette
  • Writer: Jacques Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent
  • Cast: Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Beart, David Bursztein


La Belle Noiseuse is based on a short story and focuses on an “unknown masterpiece” by well-known painter, Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli).  When Frenhofer met his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), she was the subject of a painting he had started called La Belle Noiseuse.  The painting was never finished and we learn that he hasn’t really painted much since.   The film begins when a young painter and admirer of Frenhofer, Nicolas (David Bursztein) visits for a few days at Frenhofer’s chateau with his girlfriend, Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart).  Marianne catches the eye of Frenhofer, who immediately feels inspired to revisit the painting.  Without consulting with her, Nicolas agrees to have Marianne pose.  As you might expect, Nicolas quickly regrets his decision to offer Marianne’s body for this work, setting the stage for a re-examination of all lives involved. Marianne’s decision to pose seems initially motivated out of spite towards Nicolas.  Fernhofer’s intentions seem a bit suspect too.  He doesn’t appear very affectionate towards his wife and we wonder if he might simply be lusting after Marianne, using painting as an excuse to get close to her.  Liz definitely seems to suspect as much..

Given the plot, you need characters with interesting backstories, engaging dialogue, effective mood, consistent tone, and a capable-enough painter to play the role of Frenhofer.  Jacques Rivette just about nails all of the above.  To make the painting scenes work, Rivette uses Bernard Dufour as Frenhofer’s hand for close-ups of brush strokes (although Piccoli actually does some of the painting himself).  The actual paintings end up being less than spectacular, but watching the process remains nothing less than magical.  Most scenes occur in real time, so seeing this film is as close as we’ll get to watching a painter work his magic while also feeling like we are present in a room where two people are really laying bare the meaning of their lives.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

In your first review, I think it appropriate when you say that “it is possible to have sex with someone and not know them, but it is impossible to draw them well, and not know them well.”  Piccoli is entirely convincing as a painter that is re-inspired to capture the essence of truth on a canvas, a near impossible task.  Beart is striking to look at, as she spends nearly half of the film posing nude in awkward positions.  In most films, having a painter and his nude model spending countless hours alone in a studio while disclosing their vulnerabilities would almost certainly end up with an obligatory sex scene.  Early in their relationship as artist and model, the film creates great tension that feels as though it will break into eroticism at any moment.  But the beauty of La Belle Noiseuse is that it remains purely artistic.  Your following statement sums it up: “Most films are a contest between the right and left brains, in which dialogue and plot struggle to make sense, while picture, mood, music and emotion struggle toward a reverie state. In La Belle Noiseuse the right side, the artistic side, of the viewer’s mind is given the freedom to take over, and as the artist draws, something curious happens. We became the artist ourselves.”  And as you state in  your second review, I agree that this is the best film I’ve seen about the physical creation of art.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GREAT

Do you like La Belle Noiseuse?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  After Hours

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse this week, he now has 290 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.