The late Michel Piccoli in the role of his lifetime, as an artist in Jacques Rivette's 1991 masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse
French actor Michel Piccoli died on 12 May. When I looked at his filmography, one film stood out, Jacques Rivette’s 1991 masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse.
The French actor Michel Piccoli died on 12 May, and when I looked at his filmography — filled with great works like Godard’s Contempt and Buñuel’s Belle de Jour — one film stood out. It’s a film about an artist. It’s a film about art. It’s a film about a painter, yet a film that stands for all forms of creators. It’s Jacques Rivette’s 1991 masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse.
Take this scene where the Piccoli character, named Frenhofer, begins work on a painting he’s been wanting to do his whole life, even after his mental block. (The film’s title is what this painting is called.) If he’s Ahab, “La Belle Noiseuse” is his great white whale. He begins by making rough sketches in a notebook. He tells his model (Marianne, played by Emmanuelle Béart as), “Some prefer to go straight to the canvas. A jump into the unknown. Everybody’s different.”
Many writers will identify with this sentiment. Some prefer to start with Line 1 and keep going on, trusting their instinct: “a jump into the unknown”, letting the story find itself as one keeps typing. Others chalk out an outline: a beginning, a semblance of a middle, an end, so they know the rough direction they are heading towards. The latter approach will result in surprises, too, but there’s a rough itinerary in place.
If you romanticise art, La Belle Noiseuse is a kid-in-a-candy store experience. There’s a scene where Frenhofer and a young painter named Nicolas (he’s Marianne’s boyfriend) visit the master’s studio. Nicolas says the place is silent, probably indicating that it’s great to work in, with no distractions. But Frenhofer disagrees. “Silence? Can’t you hear the forest? The sound, the murmuring, all the time. It’s like the sea. Just like the sea. It’s the fossil sound of the universe. It’s the sound of the origins. The forest and the sea mixed together. That’s what painting is.”
Nicolas, still at the start of his career, doesn’t yet romanticise art. For him, a painting is something concrete. “[It] is the stroke. A colour that stands out. A cadmium yellow, a flashing red. Something sharp, finished.” He’s talking about the product. Frenhofer is talking about the process. “Every time I felt I’d finished a painting, completed it, I always said to myself I should have gone further, try a bit harder. Take the risk.” (aka “a jump into the unknown”...) But Nicolas thinks like many people who want to be in a creative field but just want to churn out products: a book, a poem, a painting, a music album, a movie.
Later, while Marianne poses for him, Frenhofer discusses a dead sculptor named Rubek. “He did two or three things that weren’t bad. In marble… He could’ve been great... It’s a pity. You get stuck inside of what you’re searching for. Possession… They’re all after a possession. They don’t know it's impossible. Giving up everything is frightful.” There it is again: the portrait of an artist as someone possessed, “a jumping into the unknown."
Some viewers will surely laugh. They’ll say: Stop building it up so much and just draw the goddamn thing! Others will find points of identification. I’m sure Francis Ford Coppola would embrace Frenhofer. What is Apocalypse Now if not the work of a man possessed? But at what cost? Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, said, “It was a journey for him up the river I always felt. He went deeper and deeper into himself and deeper and deeper and deeper into the production. It just got out of control.” Frenhofer’s wife, Liz, tells Marianne to be careful. “He values his work more than anything else. It can cause a lot of damage to people.”
Liz was Frenhofer’s model once. Frenhofer tells Marianne that he wanted Liz before wanting to paint her. “For the first time, I was scared. The fear became the driving force behind what I did. A change of speed, like a whirlwind. I became blind. A tactile painting. As if it were... as if it were my fingers that saw and commanded themselves. That’s what I'm looking for. That’s what I want... It was then, maybe, that I became a real painter.” So why did he stop afterwards? What caused the block? “I’d have died of it. Or else, she would have.” That’s the kind of damage Liz is talking about.
And Marianne? Nicolas doesn’t even ask her before volunteering her as a model. She agrees, anyway. At first it’s difficult. Frenhofer keeps rearranging her nude form in a variety of poses: “I’ll break you to pieces… I’ll get you out of your body, get you out of your carcass.” What he means, of course, is that he will free her of her physicality and help her release her inner self, which is what he wants to capture. “I don't care about your breasts, legs, your lips… I want more. I want everything. The blood, the fire, the ice… All that’s inside your body. I’ll take it all. I’ll get it out of you and put it into this frame.”
Is this even possible? It’s exactly the topic that comes up when Nicolas’ sister drops in and has a chat with Liz. “Is it really possible to capture a whole life on the canvas of a painting? Just like that... with a few traces of paint?” Liz replies that that’s what her husband has always been searching for. That’s the great white whale. That Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s answer to “Is it really possible to capture a whole war on the screen of a theatre? Just like that... with a few rolls of film?”
At one point, Frenhofer decides he cannot do it. But Marianne, by then, comes to believe he can. The muse has become as invested as the master. What happens at the end of it all is as wonderful as the end of In the Mood for Love, where a big secret is whispered into a hole and buried forever. If that film is about one kind of love, this one’s about another. It’s not for everyone. Neither is this film, which lasts nearly four hours. But then, as the director said in a The New York Times interview: “I don’t think a true cinemagoer, someone who is not looking at his watch the whole time, minds if a film lasts longer than two or two and a half hours.” Like movie-making, movie-watching is, in its own way, “a jump into the unknown”.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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