(France 1991 239m) DVD1/2
We want truth in painting
p Martine Marignac d Jacques Rivette w Pascal Bonitzar, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette story “Le Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu” by Honoré de Balzac ph William Lubtchansky ed Nicole Lubtchansky m Igor Stravinsky art Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Michel Piccoli (Edouard Frenhofer), Jane Birkin (Liz), Emmanuelle Béart (Marianne), Marianne Denicourt (Julienne), David Bursztein (Nicolas), Giles Arbona (Porbus),
Jacques Rivette is probably the most individual director of the acknowledged greats of the nouvelle vague, a director of a purely personal vision, one which may alienate as many as it entrances but which remains wholly original. His 1991 study in the creative artistic process qualifies as a Rivettian subject in more ways than one. Not only is the film itself one to split audiences down the middle, but so too is the eponymous painting itself. In truth, the finished article (or should one say articles, as he bricks his original up rather than have people see it) is not one that I could say I really appreciated remotely enough to confer with the notion of his being a genius, but it’s the process itself that is under the microscope here. Well, that and the human soul.
One can really forget the plot here (painter is inspired to finishing a masterpiece abandoned ten years previously by the arrival of a young friend’s free spirited mistress) and revel in the subtexts. Many column inches were devoted to Béart’s endless nude scenes and they are probably the most baring (and necessarily so) scenes of nudity in movie history. As Béart said at the time of the film’s release, this is not about nudity in the conventional sense, but rather about baring your soul through your body. It’s no coincidence that Béart did not actually appear nude on screen for the best part of a decade afterwards, for her brave performance here must have taken a lot out of her. Rivette bares her as Piccoli bares Marianne. “I’ll break you to pieces” Frenhofer says, “I’ll get you out of your body.” At first she is nervous of him, then contemptuous as he contorts her on a stool, work bench, chaise longue and a rug to get the right pose. Finally, however, she is the strength, pushing him on when he’s on the verge of quitting, parading around determinedly if randomly in her dressing-gown like Cassandra pacing the walls of Troy, an outburst seemingly forever on the verge of being released from her lips. Marianne (the name of the French national heroine who Béart was once the face of, following in the footsteps of Bardot and Deneuve and succeeded by Laetitia Casta) is capricious, inquisitive, beguiling, mischievous and sensual. She is everything that a belle noiseuse (beautiful troublemaker) should be. Béart in her turn is magnificent; raw and dangerous, tender and loving, ultimately emotionally beaten and bruised. In spite of her excellent work in numerous other films (such as Time Regained and Sautet’s Un Coeur en Hiver), it’s her greatest performance, one that confirmed her (with Gong Li) as the greatest actress in nineties world cinema. Yet it’s hard to also overlook the contribution of Piccoli as the demanding artist. Too often he seems to have been more interested in working for directors he admires than actually playing great parts, but this is his finest hour, too. He may be a harsh taskmaster to his models, observing “if I go the whole way, there’s blood on the canvas” and admitting he likes to break down his models like a child dismantling a toy. Yet in the end it’s as much his blood on the canvas as his subject’s. By the end, Birkin refers to him as dead, and in some ways he is. That’s the price of his art.
Even so, this is Rivette’s film, his greatest to these eyes, a film whose intricacies and subtleties can lead to numerous interpretations. It’s also beautifully shot by regular collaborator William Lubtchansky in his preferred academy ratio, taking wonderful advantage of the Languedoc landscape and the churchlike walls of the studio. It perfectly encapsulates the struggles of creation to an artist, as well as the quintessence of how the French are viewed by outsiders, as when two English tourists watch Béart and Bursztein retire upstairs to make love soon after meeting and whisper to each other “what do you expect?” In reply, one can only say “greatness.”