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Movie Reviews

La Belle Nouiseuse  

Occasionally, I`ll bemoan the truth that I rarely venture to the multiplex, but rather, spent my hard earned money on videos which can only be viewed on a puny screen. But perhaps I shouldn`t complain. At least when you`re sitting at home, you can call the shots. If you feel like a snack, or if your bladder shouts at you to get up, you can`t command the projectionist to turn the reel off until you get back. And if the running time exceeds more than two hours, you may be in trouble, no matter how good the movie might be. I tried to suffer through Titanic in one sitting, but, alas, it was not to be. So I was lucky to be viewing the film La Belle Noiseuse in the comfort of my bedroom instead of the cramped seats of the theatre. This film is in French, with subtitles, and is exactly four hours long. And the subject is painting, no less, which is not exactly the most obviously thrilling theme for the average film-goer. To be fair, this is a pretty good film, but I would not be willing to go to a theatre to watch it, unless there was a decent intermission.

The main plot involves a great painter, played by Michel Piccolli, who lives as a recluse with his wife in his somewhat intimidatingly large house. He is visited by a young admirer and his girlfriend, played by Emmanuelle Béart. Béart doesn`t seem to be much interested in the art world, but this doesn`t seem to matter much to her own boyfriend, who gets her into a situation which causes some strife between them.

The artist and the apprentice discuss the true purpose of art. The apprentice, in his youthful naivety, seems to believe anyone can be an artist if one takes risks. The artist, in his aged wisdom, insists that not every person who attempts such a life can become a true artist, for not everyone has the talent to create new things. A true artist should be completely original, and true art must be completely original. With that in mind, the artist himself has not introduced any new art to the world in over a decade. He cannot just release any old erratically made piece of art and be satisfied with it. It must be a masterpiece or nothing. This sets us up for the main thrust of the story; an unfinished painting called La Belle Noiseuse. The original model was the artist`s wife, but she did not apparently inspire him enough to finish the work. The young man, trying to be helpful to his hero, suggests his own girlfriend could pose for him, and then be able to finish what is bound to be a masterpiece.

This development introduces a fascinating theme; a sense of control, of domination within an artist, or the people surrounding the scene, over the subjects of their art. This theme manifests itself into its most literal sense, as the subjects aren`t just from the imagination, but actual real life people, forced into appearances to suit the artist`s whim. Both the artist and the young man behave as if the woman will naturally pose for the painting, and when the couple leave for the night, the woman is taken aback by the artist`s hope to see her tomorrow. The couple then get into an argument back at their apartment, with the woman furiously condemning him for their disrespect of her privacy. All they care about is getting some stupid painting done, even if that means she is forced to stand naked in strange positions for hours. As she puts it: "You sold my arse!"

The next day, oddly, she goes over there. Possibly the idea of stepping into the artist`s private world is exciting, dangerous for her. Or perhaps she is intimidated by the environment around her, and is only able to fight back so much. Whatever it is, the fact of the matter is she does not get along with the artist. Much of the rest of the movie is dedicated to two things: the battle of wills between the woman and the artist, and the actual creative process of the artist. Director Jacques Rivette does a very unusual thing: he allows the camera to watch the artist at work, literally. We see him for minutes at a time making sketches, drafts, mixing paints,etc. cutting with shots of Béart in her numerous poses. We may not understand exactly what Picolli`s character is imagining when he sees her postures, but we can comprehend the discipline and attention needed to create what is an extensive work.

We can also comprehend the boredom and the tourture upon the model. There are many scenes where the woman appears bored, distant, untuned to the artist`s private thought process. And there are other times where she is literarrly injured in order to meet his demands. Some of her contortions are such that her neck begins to strain. She is treated like an object, occasionally roughed around, not as a person would be if one were to be assulted, but as if she were a mound of clay, constantly being shaped and reshaped until it satisfies the creator. This battle of wills becomes more complex, however, as the artist suddenly feels he is getting nowhere, and the woman becomes adamant that he not stop, now that she has managed to join in his suffering.

This film is much more contemplative, devoid of formulaic situations. The story demands complete patience and understanding from its audience; something which will be undeniably difficult to achieve. Even I personally wondered if perhaps it was just a tad too long. Probably an hour could have been cut and still maintain most of what the story set out to do.

But I won`t be unkind and say it should have been a "regular" two-hour feature, because it couldn`t have been. The story deals just as much with the artistic process itself as with the people involved, and that can take much description. It is much more deeper than a film like Artemisia, which dealt with an Italian woman and her struggle for artistic expression in the fifteenth century. That film was more fast-paced, with accessible plotting. La Belle Noiseuse is the kind of film where much attention must be paid. If you are one of the lucky few to allow yourself to get into the film, rewards will come your way. If not, well....... perhaps you can find solace in the vision of Emmanuelle Béart`s naked body for a couple of hours. It might insult the intellegence of the people involved if you were to think in those terms, but, who knows, you might eventually discover the deeper meanings after all.

David Macdonald

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