On Display
Azadeh Jafari on La Belle Noiseuse

I grew up watching classical Hollywood movies. In Tehran, we had access to a limited collection of videotapes—mostly westerns and comedies. I watched those worn treasures multiple times, reenacted and redirected them using my younger cousins as actors. Looking back, I wonder what did I find in those American films that were a thousand miles away from my own life? Thomas Elsaesser aptly elucidates the idea of film as door and screen as opening in his book Film Theory: An Introduction to Senses, using John Ford’s The Searchers as an example. By now we know that spectatorship is informed by deep and far-reaching structures that are simultaneously social and psychic, masculine and feminine. I still identify with that film’s Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) as an outcast accompanying and confronting Ethan Edwards, whom I adored not because of his obsessive, dangerous character, but because he was played by John Wayne, the quintessential American hero, the idealized protective man. It was the humanistic approach, the familial bounds, the relatable characters, the overall love that invited the viewer into the world of Ford’s films.

During childhood, I also had the opportunity to experience a very different cinema: global art films, broadcast in a weekly program on Iranian national TV. In comparison to classical cinema, those films were serious, disorienting, and bleak. Classical films satisfied my imagination and thirst for adventure by offering a meticulously constructed but realistic world; art films conversely encouraged me to crave meaning by looking inside, by criticizing my own emotions. I vividly remember crying as Anju drowned herself by walking into a lake in Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff. I remember my grave despair after watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Such films introduced a darker side to my cinephilia, their complex themes and unforgettable characters invaded my mind and transformed my worldview.

Each of those films has its own unique story in my life, but I have instead decided to write about a film that I saw some years later as a young spectator, self-educated but still inexperienced and naïve. La Belle Noiseuse, my first Jacques Rivette film, arrived as a blow to my psyche. Loosely adapted from Balzac’s short story The Unknown Masterpiece, it is about the relationship between an old master painter Édouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) and his young model Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart). Frenhofer and his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), spend a quiet life in a secluded old castle, but everything changes when the young painter Nicolas (David Bursztein) and his lover Marianne visit them. The film shattered my expectations of the typical French love triangle set against beautiful green landscapes, historical villages, or Parisian Cafes. Despite its daunting four-hour length, I was captivated, trapped in a claustrophobic cave-like chamber with an artist and model who acted as though enemies at war. Apart from Porbus (Gilles Arbona), an art dealer, the characters didn’t have worldly concerns, as they kept on talking about the meaning of abstract concepts: art, truth, love, life, and death. “What is the story?”, I continued to ask myself throughout. And upon my first viewing, the film’s enigmatic epilogue—refusing to show us the final painting—disappointed me. It seemed as though an elaborate trick on Rivette’s part.

The film’s extensive nudity and intellectual distance made me feel uneasy and inadequate. Considering Iran’s more restrictive social background, female nudity on screen was taboo, but unconsciously I preferred a better reason to dismiss the film. And a recently read essay, Laura Mulvey’s seminal Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, helped me to theorize my biased superficial perspective without comprehending the film’s multilayered context. I translated her complex argument into simple assertions. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,” she wrote, meaning the hierarchy of looks is coded in terms of gender: the man looks, the woman is being looked at. From this, I concluded that Emmanuelle Béart was elevated to the position of fetish, constructed as an object of the male gaze.

Still, La Belle Noiseuse was filled with an unfathomable atmosphere, an ethereal rarefied quality that couldn’t be dismissed. During its four hours, Marianne’s body gradually became ordinary. A more distressing thing remained: her blue eyes fiercely looking back at the artist and sometimes at the viewers. Years later, I first recall Béart’s gaze more than her body; as Frenhofer once tells her, “Your look disturbs me.”

Marianne is fragile but defiant; she poses naked for Frenhofer, but she also stares back, scrutinizes and criticizes him. In their first session, Marianne seems insolent, her impassive pale face hiding her emotions, but Béart’s delicate movements reveal inner torments. Then Frenhofer starts drawing a series of tentative sketches. First the drawing is shown, then Rivette cuts to Marianne and slowly the camera moves towards her. But the camera’s angle is not Frenhofer’s point of view. Rivette rarely connects Frenhofer’s gaze to Marianne’s body. Sometimes the camera slowly moves around the room as an independent observer, capturing both painter and model in a single frame. Rivette’s mise-en-scène never shows Marianne through Frenhofer’s eyes, which effectively breaks away from his gaze and keeps the distance.

Marianne is an active observer who gradually becomes an active participant in the process of painting. Frenhofer starts by drawing her body without her face; when he finally confesses, “I am starting to see you,” he steps back and decides to abandon the painting. It is Marianne who insists that Frenhofer should finish the work: “You can’t leave me like that, all alone in the void.” The next morning, Liz confronts Marianne and warns her of Frenhofer’s potentially damaging obsession. She asks Marianne not to let her husband paint her face. Marianne suspiciously rejects her vague advice by asserting that she can defend herself. What is the source of the couple’s fear? What are the possible dangers of being painted by him? Is it related to Liz’s jealousy or Frenhofer’s madness? To answer these questions, it is helpful to go back to a literary text mentioned briefly in the film.

La Belle Noiseuse takes its title and Frenhofer’s name from a short story by Balzac; however, its main themes come from Henrik Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken. Frenhofer at one point alludes to the play’s protagonists, Rubek and Irene, not as fictional characters but as real people. In certain positions, Marianne reminds Frenhofer of Irene. Ibsen’s final work is a mysterious ghost story about a famous sculptor, Rubek, who encounters his former model Irene during a spa trip after many years. Irene had modeled for Rubek’s masterpiece Resurrection Day. In the first act, Irene claims that she is already dead. She states that Rubek gazed upon her naked body and sucked out her very soul, “You sinned against my innermost being!” Rubek also felt spiritually dead after the completion of Resurrection Day, saying, “Those public homages and those bouquets left me nauseated and desperate, and nearly drove me deep into the darkest forests.”

Frenhofer once tried to paint Liz as “La Belle Noiseuse” (“The Beautiful Troublemaker”), but he abandoned the painting because of his love for her. He once confides in Marianne, “I would have died of it, or Liz would have died of it.” What frightened him ten years earlier is the same fate as Ibsen’s protagonists. Frenhofer doesn’t care about Marianne’s breasts, lips, or legs; he wants everything, he wants the invisible. Later in the film, when Liz talks with Nicolas’s sister Julienne (Marianne Denicourt), she reveals what her husband is searching for: “Is it really possible to capture a whole life on the canvas with few traces of paint?” Liz explains that it is something shameless and indecent, not the nudity but something that is hiding inside.

Before Frenhofer finishes the tableau in their last session, we see a close-up of Marianne’s face looking toward the right of the frame, then a sudden jump cut shows her head rapidly turning—an unforgettable shot with a magical fleeting affect. Her face is frightening, as though on the verge of mental and physical breakdown. Some minutes later, Marianne is shocked and deeply distressed in front of her own picture, which we will never see, except for a bare foot emerging from the chaos of red. The previous close-up somehow anticipated this reaction. Later Marianne confesses to Julienne that she saw something cold and dry, her inner self. The painting will expose her in front of others.

The same night, Liz visits the painting, signs it with a black cross and departs. She has left a message for her husband, who later comes to bury the tableau with the aid of their maid. Frenhofer hides his masterpiece to protect Marianne and also himself. Then, in an extraordinary dreamlike scene, he joins Liz in their adjoining bedroom. They lay next to each other in the dark, illuminated by moonlight, as if they are floating in a liminal space. Blue color governs the frame, though Liz is dressed in dark red. Rivette was always conscious and highly selective about colors, and blue and red are dominant in La Belle Noiseuse: Frenhofer wears blue shirts and sleeps in a blue room; while Liz mostly wears shades of red, the same color as her room’s wall. In their previous confrontation, Liz called Frenhofer a coward. But here she talks about death as if it is their last night together.

The next morning, Frenhofer surprises Liz when he reveals another painting to the curious eyes of their guests. Frenhofer once again says yes to love and life, a seeming affirmation of Rivette’s humanist attitude. The epilogue seems redemptive, as the camera floats between characters in the sunny garden and captures their cheery chatter. The unknown narrator now introduces herself, “I am Marianne, or I was Marianne.” She has changed through the process of painting, or perhaps to put it better she has removed her mask?

Does the film also wear a mask, in order to hide its interwoven themes and elusive content? Does it demand us to look deeper into its layers? Maybe, but it took years for me to finally come to terms with the film. Before La Belle, my familiarity with French cinema was limited, Godard’s Breathless, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Rohmer’s My Night at Maud's, and Sautet’s César and Rosalie were the epitomes of Frenchness in young Iranian cinephile circles. Most of those films were romantic, love stories of sorts, at least comprehensible at the first encounter. Even Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game had a simple story and identifiable characters.

La Belle Noiseuse overwhelmed me, as it put me in a strange, embarrassing position. I couldn’t decipher its meaning and couldn’t analyze and recognize my own feelings. I was moved by its uncompromising boldness and tranquil detachment from everyday life, but the shameless depiction of the female body seemed as though a barrier, unacceptable to a young girl who grew up in a closed, traditional society. However, La Belle encouraged me to go beyond famous New Wave filmmakers, to look for unfamiliar names like Varda, Demy, Pialat, and Marker. Only now I can see the film’s complexity, its hidden horror and intricate beauty. Like all of Rivette’s works, it invites the viewer to delve into the unknown.