On the passing of Michel Piccoli and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse

Piccoli Paints

During these months of confinement, a number of countries experienced the confirmation of a cultural shift as iconic figures and symbols from cinema, literature, theater and visual arts passed away, some inevitably through covid-19 complications, while others went because the relationship between age and their body said it was time. At this particular historical moment, when much that survives of the left in France is expressed by some operating within the spheres of culture, the passing of figures such as actor Michel Piccoli, and screenwriter/lyricist/novelist Jean-Loup Dabadie, point to a time working in culture meant being left of center as the socialist party was ebbing its ways towards governing in 1981. Piccoli, who died at 94, had a career in film, theater and television that spanned seventy years. The list of filmmakers he worked with includes Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Sautet (several of which were written by Dabadie), Jacques Demy, and of course Jean-Luc Godard. While not a communist aristocrat like director Luchino Visconti, Piccoli came from a family of means yet embraced social militancy throughout his career. In the seventies, he excelled at playing middle-aged French upper bourgeoisie white collar males, who would often yield to the torment of romance (with Romy Schneider), passion (with Stephane Audran) and of course on the receiving end of contempt (from Brigitte Bardot). Calm yet always emanating a sense of menace, Piccoli’s voice would move and rise from grace and good manners to a sudden thunderous rage. One might have imagined him in a film genre the French practice on rare occasion, the bio-pic, playing André Breton, the great poet and founder of the Surrealist movement. 

He was both willingly and in spite of himself an example of a certain type of filmic French masculinity (apart from Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon, Piccoli is perhaps the other French actor who was required to display his chest during the seventies. A torso far more hirsute than those of his peers). These traits of ‘maleness’ were to attract another major figure of the Nouvelle Vague, Jacques Rivette. Piccoli worked with Godard, with Claude Chabrol, but never appeared in films by Truffaut or Rohmer (the latter probably too Catholic and too right of center). But he joined Rivette for two films, both adaptation of Balzac. La Belle Noiseuse and Ne Touchez pas la Hache.

Of all the Nouvelle Vague directors, all of whom have time and again placed female protagonists at the center of their films, Rivette’s were often about women, including La Religieuse, Céline et Julie vont en Bateau, Out Spectre One, Le Pont du Nord, La Bande des Quatre, Jeanne D’Arc, and Va Savoir. His characters cohabit the space of the film with ghosts, apparitions and other spectral figures, residing in apartments and houses filled with rooms constituting a magical puzzle resolved through clues and the ingestion of various substances. Something must be offered or forfeited in order to enter. The filmmaker worked on occasion with ‘celebrities’, having constituted an ensemble of performers loyal to him, and relying for 25 years on the same writing duo for his screenplays, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent.

In 1991, Emmanuelle Béart was already a star after her breakthrough role in Claude Berri’s Manon des Sources (1986, adapted from Marcel Pagnol). As with a number of French actresses in the eighties and nineties, Béart’s parts required her to appear nude, but early on she framed the narrative of her nudity, as wild girl of the Provence prairies, and in La Belle Noiseuse as a celebrated painter’s model who doesn’t submit. La Belle Noiseuse begins like several other Rivette films, with characters immediately staging the setting, introducing artifice and theatricality next to a more linear narrative until the spectator realizes he/she is caught in a maze. They are often young people with pressed chinos or jeans worn too high at the waist, with shirt or polo neatly tucked in and a sweater over the shoulders. Not unlike Rohmer in that respect. But something different happens in Noiseuse, there is a central space, an arena, a ring rather than a stage, which Béart could overwhelm. To Rivette’s eyes, her power is such that he requires two mature male figures for support, Michel Piccoli as the painter who will find resolution in what the model generates, and artist Bernard Dufour, as the ‘hands’ of the artist. Rivette then proceeds to capture a choreography of desire and revelation between the hands of the painter molding Béart’s body and the artist’s masterful sketches, transmuted by what is given and pried from her.

Piccoli comes to the film with a history previously mentioned, that includes Bardot, Audran, Schneider. He is the incarnation of purpose rather than of seduction, as well as the chronicler of that purpose lost and renewed. His painter becomes the last heir to a history of painting that had to be written in the South of France.

1- Through poet and art critic Alain Jouffroy, whom I knew well for a decade or so, I had the good fortune to meet Bernard Dufour, who would talk of how after years of working with female figures, the glance came to find immediate expression in the line. La Belle Noiseuse documents this.


Jouffroy left, Dufour right. in the middle, je ne sais plus.

Never been strangers

We must detect the spirit, the informing soul in the appearances of things and beings. Effects! What are effects but the accidents of life, not life itself?

Honoré De Balzac,The Unknown Masterpiece

The 4-hour film La Belle Noiseuse (1991) presents a paragon of art (both film and painting) that succeeds in merging concision and complexity. A summer house in the South of France becomes the key setting in which a limited number of characters bring about a mythology-like story, seemingly simple but ultimately breathtaking. Freely adapted from Balzac’s short story Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), the film has revealed a much more sophisticated profile of the art ecology and the dynamics between artist and muse, male and female, the young and the old. 

Following an introduction by a collector friend, young painter Nicolas (David Bursztein) takes his girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) to visit a respected major artist, Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) during the summer vacation season. Having enjoyed his share of fame and recognition, the elderly master is at a rut in his career, ever since his beloved partner Liz (Jane Birkin) saw her role as a muse begin to wane a decade ago. In light of this, the collector friend suggests that Marianne could be the right model to rekindle a desire to work, an idea both Edouard and Nicolas agree with during a conversation not unlike a “decent” plot taking place in the dark atelier between the three of them. They quickly decide to have Marianne come to the studio the next day despite the fact that she has neither been informed nor agreed. She is naturally angry upon learning about it, but nonetheless decides to pose for Edouard. 

The following 3 hours focus on Edouard and Marianne, on the immediacy and intensity of their encounter, as they wrestle with the act of painting and being the object of the work, as well as with the confusion and conflict their working together brings to both couples. As they manage to reach a balance of power between the artist and the muse, each of them also comes to their own revelation about art and themselves. The resulting artwork is so unusual, for better or for worse, that it generates completely different reactions from Marianne, Liz and the young daughter of the house keeper. In the end, Edouard decides to hide it within a fresh cement wall in his studio, so that nobody else will have the chance look at it, including the audience in front of the screen.

Marianne and Edouard are very different. She is young, beautiful and inexperienced; he is wise, eccentric, and artistic. But from the moment they start to work together, it is suggested that deep down they share something important between them, whether the curiosity about life or the belief in beauty, or the capacity to understand it. While he sees the transient truth hidden in the model and the process of painting transcending those involved, she perceives it as an overwhelming means for her to dig into the real self. Thus, the first half of the film places not only Marianne inside the suffocating cage of art, but also Edouard and the audience, because his imperiousness and her ignorance have allowed us to be completely dominated by the discourse of art.

While Marianne is provoked to gradually see deeper, she begins to take back control and stays centered. It is the artist who has to move around her and try out various gestures in order to seize her best moments. She leads Edouard and the audience to another stage, where we are freed, aware of our subjectivity and the possibility to control it. However, what’s happening is not clear enough yet for her to grasp, which is probably why she’s so irritated by the finished painting. In fact, both of them are profoundly transformed. Even though it’s difficult to articulate how, it remains irreversible and will inevitably change their worlds as well, through their transformed relationships with their partners. Thus, it might be the best choice to seal the painting in the wall, so that this crystallization of the body and soul won’t confuse those who haven’t experienced the transformation.

The artist-muse relationship between Marianne and Edouard challenges the traditional model where one looks and the other is being looked at, one is valued for the mind and the other one for the body. Rather, they both contribute to the journey and the quest, both creating in the manner in which each excels, precisely because of their similarities and differences. The ultimate pursuit of this journey in both the film and Balzac’s original story is the sparkling vitality of life, spirit, soul and temperament of human beings and what lies above the form, which not only refers to vitalism and expressionism, but also echoes Daoism and the fundamental idea of Chinese traditional painting. As early as in the 5th Century BC, Lao Zi already mentioned about that “the great image has no form” in his philosophical elaboration of Dao, which was regarded as the foundation for Francois Jullien in understanding Chinese painting (The Great Image Has No Form, Or On the Nonobject Through Painting, 2003). When Xie He (5th Century) came up with what’s considered the first systematic art theory in China, he stressed that the highest achievement of painting is to reveal the vitality of Qiyun, which refers to the spirit and the temperament (although a number of Sinologists would rather think of it as rhythm). If aura, or vibe, in current language, is radiated from the subject and requires the perception of the others, Qiyun is something intrinsic and will be perceived if the other is sufficiently “connected”.

For centuries, what’s called literati painting in Chinese art history has been more of a lifestyle than a technique, until it faded out with the court, commercial artisans becoming more favored and profitable, leading to the prevailing of Western art theories. Since its purpose is understanding life, if there were any other method that could lead to it, the choice wouldn’t matter. Marianne and Edouard have never been strangers to this—he sees it on canvas, she lives it (in her youth not fully aware, which is the point). As for such an approach to painting, good or bad is not judged by the form but by whether the abstract essence, beauty, truth is successfully grasped. Consequently, it doesn’t matter whether such discovery or revelation could be appreciated by the others—it’s ultimately universal, and purely personal, which makes it only natural for Edouard to decide that his work doesn’t require an audience.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: