It takes a degree of bravery for someone to pose nude for an artist or artists in a class type of environment, but there's an additional element involved when the artist and model are collaborating in private, pushing toward a creative goal that's either mutual or … not. There are many layers involved with Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse: how that kind of modeling impacts the lives of the artists' loved ones; the experience of revisiting one's past abandoned creations; the longevity of one's artistic drive as the years go by. Rivette's intimate character study relies almost entirely on the psychological boundary-pushing that transpires within the aging painter's studio, though, revealing the sacrifices that the subjects make in becoming props, of a sort, to how the artist's whims get blurred by self-absorption. Ambitious intentions succeed in broad strokes throughout La Belle Noiseuse, but the attention paid to those separate parts occasionally takes away from its desired examination of the beautifully executed, vastly more absorbing mutual experience between the creator and his inspiration.
Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), an older and once highly-popular painter, has semi-retired to a large, yet breezy and down-to-earth estate in the south of France, accompanied by his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), who also once served as his model. They're visited by a young couple, an aspiring artist (David Bursztein) interested in Edouard's work and his girlfriend, Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart), and the girl sparks a degree of inspiration within the painter. Spurred by a financier who's also visiting, the idea gets planted in the painter's mind to not only pull away from the repetitive self-portraits he's been doing as of late, but to return to his "white whale" artistic endeavor from his past: "La Belle Noiseuse", or "The Beautiful Troublemaker", a concept he once explored with his wife as the model and later abandoned. Instead of returning to the idea with his wife, however, Frenhofer and the others persuade Marianne to become his nude model and inspiration. Their collaboration transpires over several days, with Marianne's hesitancy and Edouard's rustiness in directing a subject creating a tense atmosphere.
There's a subtle moment early in the first modeling session where Edouard swaps out a stool that Marianne was sitting on with the one that he was sitting on, and then, moments later after flipping around paintings and sorting tools, he swaps them back again. It's a little thing, but it emphasizes a crucial distinction in La Belle Noiseuse that'll become far more prominent later on: the painter shows disregard for everything else outside his desired atmosphere for the studio, including the model as a person, but he doesn't act or make decisions out of contempt. Narcissism fills the space, but it's a complex narcissism born of the pursuit for aesthetics and tone that Edouard hopes to capture in his work, an attitude that sometimes gets lost in the conversation about the focus and needs of artists, often chalked up as pure selfishness. Whether his nitpicky whims are necessary becomes another compelling consideration laid out by Rivette, but his execution of how his suggestions alter their creative space -- especially a beautiful moment where one step forward covers Marianne's face with just the right amount of light -- shows where his perspective lies on that.
Rivette didn't want to create a concise piece of work with La Belle Noiseuse, one that quickly gets the model out of her clothes and begins a celebration of the collaboration process with their output, instead approaching it with a similar attentiveness to that of an artist approaching a new model. As Marianne gets settled into the environment and Edouard begins sketching his subject fully-clothed and without objectives in mind, the camera looks over his shoulder as a blank piece of paper transforms into an inky, semi-abstract representation of how he filters the model's physical attributes through his perspective. The scratching of the quill, the dollops of ink created for shadows, and the "happy accidents" that he transforms into facets of the sketch are captured in real-time through the work of artist Bernard Dufour, giving a protracted, several-minute glimpse into both the quickness in which the artwork can take shape and the repetitive, exhausting sights and sounds involved. French icon Michel Piccoli splendidly realizes the persona of a painter toeing the line between egotism and creative necessity in this environment.
Once Marianne disrobes, wide-eyed and determined, the bravery of Emmanuelle Beart's performance immediately takes hold. Circumstances leading up to her doing so give the situation an additional jolt of complex -- perhaps unnecessary and partially distracting -- emotion, which also helps to strip away the potential titillation factor behind the film's intense focus on her posing nude for Edouard, complimented by careful editing and the measured gaze of the camera. The combination of fury upon her initial unclothed scene and the rigid, uncomfortable long-shots of the pose she's in shortly after eliminates most -- if not all -- eroticism that could've been found in the scenario, with Beart's physical and internal discomfort effectively conveying the dedicated strain. Of course, this evolves the longer Edouard and Marianne extend their time together; the painter's objectives with positioning and pushing his model are intriguing to behold, but less so than seeing how Marianne's willing temperament takes shape throughout their progressively obscure sessions in pursuit of Edouard's long-neglected concept.
At times, La Belle Noiseuse can be trying on the nerves, and only once I started to verbalize and piece together my impressions and frustrations with the experience did I discover that it's one of the film's most intriguing features. It's a long, deliberate piece of work -- four hours split into two parts; lengthy shots of posing, sketching, and painting kill the pacing -- with expressive but meandering secondary dramatics expanding that runtime, involving the jealousy of Marianne's boyfriend and the somber realizations of Edouard's wife and longstanding model. And once the painter-model duo reach the culmination of their creative endeavors together, the secrecy involved with what that ultimately looks like beams with obvious vanity and pretentiousness regarding Edouard's prestige, both in its precious concealment of the artwork from those watching and in how Edouard handles its existence in the narrative. With that in mind, those flawed gray areas of the painter's decisions and the impacts he and his art have upon the model effectively make La Belle Noiseuse a mesmerizing examination of not only the creative process, but the realities of the friction, lack of control involved, and revisiting of past ambitions.
Video and Audio:
La Belle Noiseuse received a 4K restoration to commemorate its 25th anniversary, the source for Cohen Media Group's theatrical presentation roughly a year back and for this Blu-ray presentation. The film was shot on 35mm film, providing an excellent foundation for the sprucing-up of its cinematography, which was curiously framed at 1.37:1 for its theatrical distribution. It's rare nowadays for Blu-ray treatments to be well-and-truly impressive beyond what's expected of the medium, but the mixture of this niche film's vintage and the 4K restoration itself manages to do so through this 1080p AVC transfer. Mostly, this comes in the suppleness of skin tones and the delicacy of fine details amid close-ups, carefully emphasizing the freckles and contours of Emmanuelle Beart's skin throughout, though the strengths also pour over into the sharpness of the sketching scratches and depths of the ink present in the artwork. Flesh tones are impeccable, lighting and shadows in the studio are encompassing yet adaptive to the desired brightness, and scenes both indoors and out exhibit flawless depth. A delight.
There might not be a lot of sound involved with the audio presentation of La Belle Noiseuse, but the elements present are absolutely crucial to the sensory experience: Jacques Rivette's ability to lead the audience into the painter's studio and make them feel like true observers of something intimate. The French 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track focuses intently on the clarity of dialogue, and it beautifully does so both in the confined workspace as well as within the delightfully weathered rooms of the artist's mansion. Ultimately, however, the soundtrack relies on the crispness of his ink pen's scratches and the roughness of a paintbrush flowing onto a canvas for its most poignant aural elements, and the stereo track here strongly represents the natural sounds of artwork being created through a robust, if narrowly-focused column at the center of the soundstage. Nowhere near as good as the visual treatment, but it's clean and organic throughout, and sporting exemplary Englush subtitles.
With the way La Belle Noiseuse is structured, elongated over four hours and with a deliberate pace, a commentary track has all the time and meandering attention in the world to craft a worthwhile discussion about, well, pretty much anything and everything involving the film. That's what the scholarly Audio Commentary with Richard Suchenski has accomplished here, exploring both the practical filmmaking aspects and the themes/motifs scattered throughout the film. The delivery might be dry and drone on a little across the two-part discussion, but the content he explores is nothing short of interesting, ranging from the parallels to Jacques Rivette's life within the story to shooting locations and a meaty discussion about the aspect ratio of the film. Suchenski also engages in compelling scene-by-scene analysis of the subtle storytelling mechanics at work, as well as discussing how he arrived at the particular artist, Bernard Dufour, as a practical representation of the creative aspects within the film. This is a academic-caliber lecture, one probably best digested in segments.
Appearing on Disc Two, a pair of archival featurettes that originally appeared on the prior New Yorker standard-definition release: an Interview with Jacques Rivette (13:28, 4x3), in which the filmmaker charts the path to the film's creation, name-dropping Claire Denis in early creative discussions and how so many of his decisions about stories and actors were made quickly; and an Interview with Co-Writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent (21:10, 4x3), conducted in a radio-show format where they reiterate the film's origins from a joke in a prior work of Rivette's and discuss their inspiration while semi-adapting a story from Balzac. The content in both is interesting, but on a visual level, there are a lot of clips from prior, dated transfers for La Belle Noiseuse itself that showcase how exemplary the restoration is here.
Cohen Media Group have also included their 2017 Re-Release Trailer (1:51, 4x3).
La Belle Noiseuse depicts the tense, boundary-lowering relationship that forms between an older, reclusive painter and the young woman who becomes his new model and inspiration, drawing him out of a degree of retirement to revisit a concept for a painting that eluded him for years. This transpires in a deliberate fashion over four hours that almost has the illusion of happening in real-time, especially when the camera lingers on the actual art being created and on the nude model enduring various degrees of discomfort throughout. Fine performances from Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Beart create palpable energy in the space as the artist manipulates his model, though the profundity of their collaboration cannot fully support the film's intense runtime, dramatic diversions into their personal lives, or the oddities of its ending. Despite those reservations, even its contentious aspects have a degree of interest and depth involved with ‘em that makes them worthwhile, forming into a comprehensive -- perhaps overly so -- portrait of the experience. Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray presentation of the 4K restoration looks marvelous, sounds just right, and contains a bookishly stimulating audio commentary. Recommended