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.