Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend of mine about Phantom of the Paradise, and I wanted to cite something from my old Movie Moment piece on the film. However, when I tried to click the link on my site, the piece was gone. Or so it seemed, anyway- due to some funky Internet magic, the URLs listed under my links don't seem to work anymore, although with some creative googling one can (eventually) find Screengrab 1.0. But to save you the effort, I've decided- with the permission of my old editor Peter Smith- to re-post my favorite pieces here. I'm going to begin with my original series, The Movie Moment, to be followed by others I deem worthy of re-posting. I can't say how soon I'll get this done. Let's just say I'll do it when I have the time. Anyway, here's one I'm particularly fond of. Enjoy, either again or for the first time.

The Movie Moment: La Belle Noiseuse (1991, Jacques Rivette)

(Originally posted 26 April 2007. Reprinted with permission.)

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in the U.S, the popular refrain on Jacques Rivette is that he’s one of the greatest of French filmmakers, and one whose work hasn’t been nearly as widely seen as it should be. A major reason for his relatively small audience has always been the films’ running times — nearly all of them are over two hours long, with many of them over three hours and his longest clocking in at more than twelve hours. Rivette is hardly the only filmmaker who specializes in long movies, but unlike many others who do, he rarely uses the extra time to expand the plot. Instead, he lengthens the scenes themselves, allowing them to play out at a natural speed rather than trimming them down for the sake of keeping the story moving. For example, early in Out 1 (1971) he devotes well over half an hour to a scene in which a troupe of actors take part in an acting exercise which consists mostly of animalistic grunting and screaming.

Nowhere is Rivette’s flair for long, luxurious scenes more in evidence than La Belle Noiseuse (1991). While Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) may be his most acclaimed movie, Noiseuse is perhaps his most widely seen, not least because long stretches of the movie show Emmanuelle Beart in the altogether. However, the real subject of La Belle Noiseuse isn’t Beart’s rockin’ bod — though that certainly helped put butts in the seats — but rather the creative process. Of all the movies I’ve seen on the subject, I don’t think any has captured it as perfectly as Rivette does here.

La Belle Noiseuse tells the story of Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), a respected painter who hasn’t worked in years, and Marianne (Beart), the lover of Nicolas, a younger artist. When Nicolas goes to meet Frenhofer, the elder artist takes special notice of the young woman he’s brought along, and when she is elsewhere, they agree that she will model for him as he attempts to paint an ambitious work he abandoned over a decade ago, entitled “La Belle Noiseuse.” While Marianne is appalled by the idea at first, she eventually agrees, for her own reasons. But while the plot synopsis might lead a viewer to expect a tawdry melodrama like Indecent Proposal, Rivette’s film isn’t about sex, but about art.

On their first day in the studio, Frenhofer decides to sketch Marianne in ink, as a preliminary step before breaking out the paints and canvas. After she disrobes (all Frenhofer’s paintings are nudes) he sketches her body in various positions before he decides to simply draw her face. Marianne puts her hair up using a spare paintbrush, and then Frenhofer begins.

This scene is where Rivette’s use of long takes pays off beautifully. Once Frenhofer has begun sketching Marianne’s portrait, the film cuts to a stationary shot of the sketch being committed to paper. As several minutes pass, we see Frenhofer’s hands (supplied by artist Bernard Dufour) recreate Marianne’s face on paper. First the rough outlines of her head and features are drawn in, then more detail, and finally Frenhofer uses a wet brush to put some shading into the sketch. Finally, after Frenhofer has finished, Rivette cuts to a shot of the artist at his drawing table, studying the sketch, and setting down his pen and exhaling, satisfied.

For Frenhofer and for most people who create, scenes like this are few and far between. As we see in the next three hours, painting is an arduous process for Frenhofer, and not incidentally, for Marianne, whom he ends up twisting into more convoluted positions in an attempt to find the perfect one. At one point in the film, he even mentions that all of his best paintings have some of his own blood on the canvas, since he’s worked so hard to paint them. Such a blinkered creative process borders on the obsessive, but being a creative person myself, I could certainly relate.

Moments like the one Frenhofer has when sketching Marianne’s face can be a godsend to an artist, no matter what his medium. When attempting to create a serious work of art, as Frenhofer says, “you get stuck inside of what you’re searching for,” and the process can become frustrating or even painful. But occasionally inspiration and perspiration can come together perfectly and sublimely, and when this happens, this motivates you to press onward. In fact, they can make all the difference between a work that gets finished and one that gets abandoned. That’s why Frenhofer’s final gesture after completing the sketch is so telling. Because he works so hard, often to so little avail, he knows better than to let a small victory like this pass him by. And so, he just sets down his pen, looks over the sketch, and enjoys the moment, much like I’m going to do right now.

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