Inspired by a novella, Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu by Balzac, La Belle Noiseuse (1991) – which roughly translates as The Beautiful Nuisance, or Pain-in-the-Arse – is a study of love and art, of truth and secrecy, of honesty and duplicity. It is one of the only movies to ever come close to capturing the essence, both in preliminary sketch and in painted completion, of the process of the painter as an artist.
Frenhofer (Michele Piccoli) is a semi-retired painter living a peaceful, reflective life in his beautiful Provence countryside estate, with his wife Liz (Jane Birkin), and a young maid (Leila Remili). Nicolas (David Burszstein) arrives with Mariannae (Emmanuelle Beart), along with Porbus, Frenhofer’s agent. Porbus wants new art, but Frenhofer is reluctant, elusive. Nicolas is restless, whilst Marianne is an open book. Half-jokingly Nicolas and Porbus suggest that Marianne be his model, to invigorate his creative juices again.
Frenhofer decides to start again the work on a painting he long ago stopped: “La Belle Noiseuse”. Marianna replaces his original muse, wife Liz, and is quickly seduced by Frenhofer’s casual intensity, as the aging painter knows her natural beauty, especially once she is sans clothes – au naturale – and being contorted into poses sensual and provocative.
A struggle for truth, life and sense begins, and the question of where the limit of art lies, or whether art is, in fact, limitless burns through the fabric of resistance. Marianne yearns to discover the artist’s creative secrets, yet the artist probes deeper and deeper inside the young woman, extracting another person entirely.
Elegantly directed and sumptuously shot, entirely on location, this is a quietly powerful treatise on the relationship between artist and model, between what is genuine and what is fake; in emotion, psyche, physicality, and ultimately in expression. Yet “The Beautiful Nuisance” remains as elusive as the spark of imagination. Masterfully understated, gloriously uninhibited, the film, and the mesmerising performance of Emmanuelle Beart has become a benchmark for artistic nuance and nude pulchritude.
The movie strolls for a leisurely 229 minutes, but was also released in a rarely seen alternate version (designed for French television and re-titled Divertimento) running 125 minutes that utilises different takes, a different editing rhythm, and featured less nudity and brighter lighting.
La Belle Noiseuse film review by Bryn Tilly of www.cultprojections.com