Movies about artists, whether fictional or biographical, are rarely about art. More often, they're about the personal effluvia generated by the artist lifestyle—the parties, the meltdowns, the stormy relationships, the inevitable nightmare descent into booze and pills, and so on. Usually, the only thing known about the actual art is that it tortures its creator. Jacques Rivette's 1991 masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse reverses the formula: In stretching a painter's three-day sessions with a recalcitrant model into nearly four hours of screen time, the film focuses intently on the creative process, and the drama spins off in kind. Rarely has a film dealt so intimately with the complex relationship between artist and subject, which here gets knotted up in mutual desire and vulnerability, intense jealousy, and a degree of exploitation.
Inspired by Honoré de Balzac's short story "The Unknown Masterpiece," La Belle Noiseuse ("the beautiful annoyance") centers on esteemed painter Michel Piccoli, who resides in semi-retirement at his provincial villa, having not picked up a brush in about a decade. After a shrewd art dealer (Gilles Arbona) introduces Piccoli to admirer David Bursztein and his stunning girlfriend Emmanuelle Béart, Arbona and Bursztein convince Piccoli to continue an unfinished portrait, with Béart replacing Piccoli's wife (Jane Birkin) as the nude model. Béart reluctantly agrees to take part, but she grossly underestimates the physical and psychological toll that will be exacted on her.
"You're not free, and neither am I," Piccoli tells Béart when she complains about holding a particularly torturous pose; his line shows the rigorous demands that great or even mediocre art can impose on its participants. And on the audience, for that matter: Few directors treat the passing of time as leisurely as Rivette, whose Out 1 clocks in at 12 hours, but the seemingly mundane work of Piccoli scratching out drawing after drawing has a mesmerizing effect. The end result of Piccoli and Béart's labor may ultimately elicit shrugs—the title of Balzac's story could refer to a hidden gem, or to a work that some might not know as a masterpiece—but getting there takes extraordinary effort. A cynic might liken the experience to watching paint dry, but the insistent scrape of Piccoli's ink pen and the whoosh of his brushes (both wielded by real figurative artist Bernard Dufour) are alive with creative tension and conflict. In La Belle Noiseuse, the painting says more about the artist's life than the artist's life could ever say about a painting.