The Grands: La Belle Noiseuse

The Grands is an article series in which we give an in depth look at Grand Prix winners from The Cannes Film Festival. 

Director Jacque Rivette loves to color outside the lines. In fact the guy has practically made his entire career out of the concept. In his arguable (and daunting) magnum opus Out 1 he dismantled the concept of a film noir into a 13 hour slug fest of parallel subplots and political/social jabbing.

Personally that film bored me to tears but it wasn’t difficult to understand it’s appeal and subversion. The only other film by the director I’ve seen so far is Celine and Julie go Boating which felt like a 70’s re-imagining of Daisies and a precursor to Broad City. It’s more entertaining than Out 1 but not exactly memorable outside a couple of select scenes.

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Needless to say heading into La Belle Noiseuse I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. The screenshots had never held much interest, the plot seemed thin, especially considering the near 4 hour runtime. Still, determination won me over and I popped the first disc in about 15 minutes after waking up. I was ready for something tedious and dry, but what ended up playing struck me in a way few films ever have.

La Belle Noiseuse follows a relatively straight forward story focusing on a reclusive, aging, painter named Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli). He lives a simple, quiet existence with his wife and former muse Liz (Jane Birkin). This existence of a somewhat stilted marriage gets an uproar when an admirer of Frenhofer’s work, Nicolas (David Bursztein) and his girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart) come to visit for a few days.

The first hour or so of the film is mostly plot and character development. We get a real sense of each character and the role they play both within the two couples and the group as a whole. Each character has at least one 1 on 1 scene with each other character and none of these characters is perfect by any measurement.

What this first hour does, and what I wouldn’t become aware of until afterwards was that this opening scene was like the first moves of a chess game. Each player feels the other out through a series of debates and/or discussions based on a variety of topics. These topics range from art itself to existential crisis and the limits of not only the artist but the artist model.

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One of the film’s staples and what seems to be an area of debate, is the extended sequences of the painter’s constant sketching. All of these sketches are captured in real time and you get to see every sketch unravel before your eyes. It’s a bold artistic gamble, and one that isn’t going please everyone.

However, I do think it will please fans of the artistic process because I guarantee they are going to find this literal eye on the creative process beautifully fascinating.

In it’s own unique way, it can be quite calming at times. The artist isn’t stingy or slow, he does quick, seemingly improvised strokes, playing the various paints and brushes like a jazz musician. These scenes are to me, the absolute basis of what director Rivette is trying to accomplish. That is, a dismantling of the literal creative process. Obviously we can’t jump into the artists mind, but this might be the next best thing.

This goal would be, in itself, incredibly ambitious for a director to tackle. Rivette however, doesn’t seem content for this to be the only aspect of the film. An equal amount of the time is spent focusing on a much more universal theme, that of relationships. Emotional, physical or otherwise. As I mentioned above, each character getting one on one scenes creates a group dynamic that you don’t see in too many films.

Each person has specific feelings towards each other person, and they act upon these feelings abruptly and without much hesitation. A terrific scene in the first hour. Probably one of the single best character building scenes I’ve seen all year.

We get the 5 characters sitting around a table discussing this and that, only to have the conversation turn to the limits of sacrifice in art. This creates immediate and obvious tension between all members because each has his or her own experience in this sacrifice.

Emmanuelle Beart in particular gives one of the most daring and subtle performances I have ever seen.

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Rivette, who I already mentioned didn’t do much for me in his last two films. Adding to my frustration with him, he came off as such a fascinating man in interviews. On a surface level I can see how this movie might feel pretentious or even gimmicky to an extent.

But Rivette and companies singular dedication to not only the narrative but the style of that narrative, is nothing short of complete allegiance to the craft. Amongst my favorite stylistic choices, was the use of a pen/pencil scratching on paper making up the majority of the “soundtrack”.

I didn’t even notice it at first because it was fairly underplayed but the way the brain sort of synchs up with it and the visuals is downright eerie yet relaxing at the same time. Miraculously, I was never once taken out of the film, which is normally a risk during ambitious works like this one.

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It’s a bit difficult to fully explain and analyze this film without going into an immensely detailed character by character personality examination. It would take a long time and would be boring in comparison to just watching the film for yourself.

Personally speaking, this is a film I firmly believe every artist should see. No matter your craft. It’s straightforward enough so that it’s easy to follow, but deep and open enough that it’s going to spark endless debate and analysis. If only every Grand Prix winner were going to be this…essential.

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