In Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête”, Venus bears the fate of a poor house slave. Her wicked sisters have all the fun and she cleans up after them. Like some bird in a cage, Belle is too tame and domesticated, refusing to marry Avenant so she can stay behind and care for her father.
La Bête, on the other hand, represents our uncivilized self, having overwhelming temptations that we somehow just barely manage to contain and, in so doing, over time, manage to temper with the refinements of beauty and love. The fable reassures us that beauty melts even the most overpowering brutality and the tamed beast can be counted on to supply ample potency and instinct to make all of Beauty’s romantic dreams come true.
All this is made possible when La Bête submits to Belle. Even though he is holding her against her will, she manages to befriend him. Belle developes compassion for La Bête restless longing and then, in a final twist, the secret is revealed. A dashing Prince was trapped, by an evil spell, inside the body of la Bête. Suddenly a handsome young man, chins forward to claim Belle’s hand. By the grace of some wondrous power, they are joined in sacred bonds and swept up into the sky to fly to the Prince’s kingdom.
Like Bertolucci did in “Stealing Beauty,” the 1991 film “La Belle Noiseuse” by Jacques Rivette also uses the artist/model relationship to pay homage to Venus, reworking the “La Belle et la Bête” fable through a very different lens.
“La Belle Noiseuse” is another film that dispenses dear old, eternally young Venus into new human skin, this time by way of some ingenious thematic inversions. Here, in this version, not unlike the sculptor in “Stealing Beauty,” that lived in a villa in Tuscany, the virtuoso of our next version is a renowned painter who lives a quiet life in the French countryside. The investigation into which this artist plunges with his model is quite different than the father/daughter blueprint we were submitted to in “Stealing Beauty.” As a quintessential modernist would, Fernhoffer, the maistro of “La Belle Noiseusse,” has given himself the daunting task of de-idealizing Venus.
In the opening scene, we immediately find an inversion worth noting. Instead of Beauty being spied on by the Beast in the beginning of the affair, this time we eavesdrop on the beautiful Marianne as she is stalking a second floor balcony snapping candid pictures of a handsome young man in the courtyard below whom, it turns out, is actually her boyfriend. Note how prevalently the act of spying on Venus is positioned in the first acts of all these movies.
The entire opening sequence, it is soon revealed, is a game Marianne and Nicolas play for two tourists in the courtyard, who are supposedly the real eavesdroppers. So, for the astute film watcher this turns into a kind of running “who’s on first” joke, but the punch line is not trying to tell us that Europe is Beauty and tourists are the Beast. I doubt that, anyway.
In the transitional sequence between the previously described eavesdropping game and the first meeting with Fernhoeffer, at least a couple of important details should be mentioned. Marianne, the model-to-be, takes off her shoes on her way to the artist’s villa, unselfconsciously marking herself as a pilgrim. What kind of pilgrim? An art pilgrim? A truth pilgrim? If so, not a religious one, but in no way a tourist on holiday either.
A second precocious detail in this film comes when Liz, the artist’s devoted former model and presumed wife, remarks on a room in their villa that houses two chimeras. “You’ve found the Chimera Room, which is my favorite because it is completely unnecessary”–no doubt a comment on the way a model feels when she gets replaced by a younger one but also on what a fleeting creature she supposes to represent whenever she poses. In the end, the model herself is left behind. Only the artist’s portrait of her is considered.
As I’ve eluded to, the most prominent inversion in “La Belle Noiseusse” comes when Fernhoeffer tries to exorcize all the idealism out of beauty and expose the raw, unglamorous organism of his exceptionally lovely, intelligent and game accomplice. This requires, from both artist and model, three essential qualities; absolute trust, ruthless will, and physical stamina.
The scenes of artist and model working together start off like a master class in studio technique. There seems to be an emphasis on the scratchiness of the drawing instruments on the paper and canvas. The incessant noise, on the otherwise almost vacant soundtrack, can be off-putting at times, but this sound assists the image by emphasizing the mesmerizing intensity of the creative act. However, for this story to hold the attention of anyone but an art lover or aspiring painter, gradually, the model must become a fully participating collaborator, and then, in the end, after total surrender, be shocked at the outcome.
Their respective tasks look pretty overwhelming for them both at first. Her challenge is to devote herself completely to the expressed goal of the master. His has to do with seizing a lightening bolt that first struck him when he was in his prime–about which, now, he thinks himself long past.
There is much well conceived, well-defined character detail in “La Belle Noiseusse”. The masterpiece that is born at the climax manages to surprise everyone differently than everyone else including the audience. All of this requires brilliant storytelling, which is also what this movie is a master class in.
The model breaks through earlier on, but the master surprises himself only in the final brushstrokes and we can even sense that he’s exceeded his goal just as he steps back from the finished work. This is all made more significant when fulfillment turns out to be for him alone as his model appears distressingly shocked, exposed in some way with which she does not feel comfortable.
The master is detached enough from his ego that he can happily deny himself for her sake. The satisfaction of turning out a late career tour de force comes from the act of creation itself. We alone are allowed to revel in this old dog’s new trick with hiim while he sequesters away his magnum opus behind mortar and brick.
That, indeed, would seem like the ultimate surprise. Surely it is the masterstroke of storytelling in this story, but no, the ultimate transcendence is reserved for what the model saw when she took her first look at the work. Only once it is finished and she’s put her clothes back on, does it become clear what she laid on the line. We’ll never see the actual painting, but her reaction strikes the most raw, emotional chord in the film.
That canvas must have revealed something about hers that Marianne least expected. In the process it takes the blinders off her eyes about life, her future and lover Nicolas who is supposed to be some up-and-coming young stud on the modern painting scene.
In the end, having only seen a substitute for the masterpiece, Nicholas passes arrogant judgment on the maestro. Fernhoeffer, in rebuttal, says to Nicholas, “I hope you never change.” Nicholas must feel some sense of being bested or busted by that remark, but he’s perhaps too self-focused to get it before we do.
Marianne appears quietly philosophical about the experience of posing for a living legend. Her satisfaction consists in being a peer to the master, in how she overcame her own self-imposed limits to occasionally even surpassed the master’s commitment as she applied her body and soul to his intention.
Fundamental symmetry would be disturbed if the master’s neurosis were not on full display in these proceedings as well. This was never reflected with more unflattering candor than in the performance of model-turned-wife Liz played by Jane Birkin and how she seems to be almost entirely consumed in the master’s shadow.
The surprises, at the end, certainly resonates different ways with different viewers, but it is far from ambiguous to me that something positive has taken place. In fact, satisfaction ripples out in direct relation to the importance each character plays in the birth of the new work. Ferhoeffer gets his edge back. Marianne is shown some mysterious truth about herself. Liz receives her hero from a successful conquest. Nicolas leaves with a deluded notion of his superiority.
Even the art dealer, Balthazar, though hardly in possession of a masterpiece, wanders proudly away with what he was after, and we, the audience have indulged another couple hours in the company of Venus.