Monday, July 1, 2013

Reflection on "La Belle Noiseuse"

For most of the 1990s I lived in Montréal, which is a great city for culture. One of the benefits of living in a bilingual, bicultural place like Montréal is the wealth of cinema you have access to. There are three kinds of movie theaters in Montréal. They show first-run English films, first-run French films and the repertory theaters show classics, both old and recent.

In 1991 I went to a new film by French director Jacques Rivette, one of the French New Wave directors that came to fame in the 1960s. The film I saw was the quite lengthy La Belle Noiseuse coming in at just under four hours running time. It is based on a short story by Honoré de Balzac about an aging painter that is inspired to complete his masterpiece by encountering a new model in the person of the lover of a young painter of his acquaintance. The short story is "Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu".

I'm not going to talk about how this relates to the idea of a 'muse' or not in this post at least! But what I do want to talk about are the fascinating and lengthy scenes in the studio where we see the painter at work. There are long single shots of the hands of the painter, played by Michel Piccoli, interspersed with shots of the model, played by Emmanuelle Béart, who is nude for most of the time. There is very little sexual about it however as what we see is the struggle of the artist with his materials in his attempt to capture something about the forms, masses and shapes of the model.

There is a long opening scene when they first go into the studio where he leaves the model standing there for a long time while he digs around for some pens, ink, water and a sketchbook. He hasn't worked for a while, so everything is scattered around, dusty and dried out. Finally he is ready and plops her on a chair. Until this moment he more or less ignores her, but from now on, his gaze is intense. What is so interesting is the way he engages his materials: pen, ink, water and paper. The pen is horrible, it scratches and only issues ink in intermittent splotches. Sometimes there is a blob which he smears around with his fingers. Then he takes a brush and smears a wash of diluted ink here and there. He jumps from one part of the sketch to another, seemingly randomly. For a long, long time, the image is just a bunch of jumbled scratches. Then, suddenly, you see the image: the body of the model seems to materialize on the page.

Here is the complete film. The first time they enter the studio is at the 53:30 mark. He is finally ready and looks at her at the 1:00:05 mark. That first sketch, with the model fully clothed, takes almost seven minutes. Quite a long scene in most films. This is followed immediately by another sketch, this time of her face that takes another five minutes. At the 1:14:30 mark begins another long scene, this time a sketch of the whole figure, nude. Warning, this is fully frontal nudity, if you want to skip viewing it. It won't affect my point if you just watch the scenes of the first two sketches.

What I find fascinating here is the artist's attitude towards his materials. He doesn't seem to want smooth, new pens and brushes that deliver precise and reliable amounts of ink. Instead, he uses scratchy pens that seem to deliver unpredictable amounts of ink from nothing to blobs. His ink washes are similarly sloppy. It is as if he is wrestling with the pen, paper and ink themselves--the basic materials.

And what of composers? How do we wrestle with our materials? Or do we? Here the artist is working on a level so basic there is a kind of aesthetic purity to it. Pen. Paper. Ink. Model. How many thousands of years have artists been doing exactly this? But composers have only been composing in the sense we understand it today since the 12th century when the first contrapuntists were working at Notre Dame in Paris. A mere 800 years. And our materials, in the sense of what we work with to capture the composition on paper, have changed radically. For Léonin and Perotin, the materials were quill pens and parchment. For me, an iMac and Finale software. It is so easy for me to compose and to hear a computer-synthesized performance instantly. Perhaps I should try going back to pen and ink on manuscript paper and see what difference that makes...

This process seems so different from what I go through. I wrestle with the materials too: is that the right chord? No! So change it. What comes next? A new rhythm? And so on. But the scratching around is concealed by the software. It doesn't allow me to slop notes around. It forces every note and rhythm to be precise and exact. And when I change something, what was there before is gone forever.

You know where the process of composition is a lot like what the painter is doing here? In jazz. And here is the album that comes to mind, perhaps because of the title: Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. This is the track based on the slow adagio movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo:

Back in 1960, when this was recorded, there weren't many recordings of the Aranjuez around. In fact, it is likely that the one that inspired this version was the first stereo recording by Narciso Yepes, released in 1959. Here is a performance from around that time:

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