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La Religieuse, 1966
[Suzanne Simonin, la Religieuse de Denis Diderot/The Nun]

KarinaBehind the cloistered walls of a Paris convent in 1757, a young woman named Suzanne (Anna Karina), the sole remaining unmarried daughter of a prominent attorney named Simonin (Charles Millot) and his wife (Christiane Lénier), is reluctantly brought before the priest in order to take her monastic vows before creating a scandal by willfully (and unexpectedly) refusing to take them and instead, pleading hysterically to her inexpressive parents to be set free before being forcibly silenced by attending nuns who abruptly conclude the ceremony by drawing the curtains before a group of stunned, invited guests in the adjoining vestibule. Spared from the seeming indignity of having to learn a practical vocation in order to maintain the bourgeois family's appearance of privilege, but having reached adulthood without a suitable dowry for marriage, Suzanne has little recourse but to comply with the selfish, unrelenting demands of her callous parents, a coercion that is further ingrained into the tormented young woman's psyche when her mother reveals the incidental details of her nebulous paternity. Sublimating her own desire for freedom, Suzanne comes under the protection of the gentle and nurturing abbess of Longchamp, Mme de Moni (Micheline Presle) who advises her to accept God's will, and becomes resigned to her fate. However, when the abbess passes away, Suzanne immediately finds herself in the disfavor of Mme de Moni's successor, the stern and uncompromising Mother of Novices, Soeur Sainte-Christine (Francine Bergé), as she institutes an intolerant and oppressive policy of asceticism, self-abnegation, and rigorous discipline. Foundering in her resolve without the moral support of her trusted confidant, Suzanne becomes increasingly desperate and maniacal in her quest to recant her insincere vows, regain her freedom, and escape to the outside world.

Based on the Jean Gruault play, an adaptation of the 1760 novel by Age of Enlightenment philosopher, enyclopedist, and novelist Denis Diderot (posthumously published in 1796), La Religieuse is a spare, elegantly taut, and indelibly haunting exposition on the rigidity of class, institutional repression, and the consequences of a patriarchal society. Jacques Rivette illustrates his familiar preoccupation with the interrelation between theatrical performance and real life (note the conventional use of stage tapping to indicate the commencement of the drama), not only thematically, through the incorporation of historical fiction that, nevertheless, retains a cultural periodicity in its realism and social relevance, but also visually, in the somber, insular staging of the convent rooms, iron-barred vestibules, corridors, and even outside (walled) grounds that conveys a pervasive sense of claustrophobia, entrapment, and forced intimacy. Evoking the austerity and unrelenting demoralization of the titular heroine in Kenji Mizoguchi's seminal film Life of Oharu, Suzanne's plight is similarly a tragic consequence of an entrenched, repressive class structure that subjugates individuality, personal conscience, and human will for the illusion of privilege, order, and conformity: a codification of social behavior that arbitrarily relegates cloistered, religious service as an alternative vocation rather than as a conscientious (and deeply personal) spiritual calling. In essence, it is society's intractable adherence to doctrine, regimentation, and procedure over humanity and conscience that is symptomatically echoed in the cruelty, barbarism, pettiness, and self-indulgent excess within the walls of the cloisters: a pervasive moral bankruptcy that infects even the most hermetic - and powerful - of institutions. It is through this oppressive and inescapable reality that the recurring image of a humbled, prostrate Suzanne becomes, not an expiational gesture by a broken-willed communicant, but a graceful, figurative act of flight, bearing of burden, and irrevocable transcendence.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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La Belle noiseuse, 1992
[The Beautiful Troublemaker]

Karina On a lazy summer afternoon at a courtyard café of a provincial hotel, a lone, pensive artist named Nicolas (David Bursztein) abstractly observes a pair of English tourists and rough sketches them onto his journal before being distracted by the mechanical whirring of an actuated instant camera from an overlooking balcony. The surreptitious photographer is revealed to be Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) who ostensibly complies with Nicolas' request to discuss in person the terms for which she would be willing to relinquish the presumably incriminating photograph - a playful verbal sparring that, not surprisingly, takes on an immediate sexual overtone as the two hurriedly make their way to an upstairs room on the pretense of finalizing their dubious transaction. The mysterious - and overtly unseemly - public display is soon revealed to be a role-playing game staged by the young couple, perhaps out of boredom and restlessness in the bucolic village, as Nicolas awaits the opportunity to meet with a renowned, semi-retired artist named Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) through their mutual acquaintance, an art collector and gallery owner named Porbus (Gilles Arbona) before the couple's trip comes to an end. Ten years earlier, the reclusive Frenhofer decided to abandon an ambitious study entitled La Belle Noiseuse, inspired by the Balzac heroine - a courtesan named Catherine Lescaut - after the profound intimacy involved in the project - a self-described artistic quest to "go further" and intrinsically capture and give form to the model's ephemeral essence on canvas - began to expose the fragile vulnerability of his relationship with his wife and muse Liz (Jane Birkin) that would nearly ruin their marriage. Now goaded by Porbus to resume the ill-fated project (who offers to buy the painting upon completion sight unseen) with a different (and perhaps more importantly, less emotionally invested) model, the aging Frenhofer begins to express his reluctance and self-doubt in undertaking such a demanding task, a trepidation that the reverent and well-intentioned Nicolas attempts to assuage by offering to have Marianne pose for him. It is an impulsive and presumptuous act that soon begins to betray fissures in the young lovers' relationship as well, as their seeming carefree bohemian existence strains under the weight of Marianne's resentful acquiescence, Nicolas' passivity, and Frenhofer's consuming obsession to create a final masterpiece.

Loosely adapted from Honoré de Balzac's The Hidden Masterpiece, La Belle noiseuse is an elegantly realized, exquisitely tactile, understated, and deliberative exposition on the complex mutualism and turbulent process of artistic creation. From the lyrical opening sequence of Nicolas and Marianne's staged seduction, Jacques Rivette uses his distinctive, recurring narrative device of performance within a performance in order to illustrate the film's theme, not only of the social propensity to create insulating (and protective), emotional adaptation through masquerade and façades, but also the revelatory nature of art that results from passion, diligence, focus, sacrifice, and abandonment of fear and inhibition. Evoking both the assiduous self-discipline of manual ritual in Robert Bresson's cinema and the methodical rigor of Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia in Victor Erice's contemporary film The Quince Tree Sun, Rivette eschews the stereotypical characterization of the volatile artist by incorporating real-time illustration of figure sketches and composition studies that reflect the artist's deliberate methodology: the systematic deconstruction, re-assimilation, and translation of the physical form (note the filmmaker's use of narrative linearity and extended pacing to simulate logical diurnal progression). In the end, it is through Frenhofer's thoughtful and disciplined struggle that he creates an inspired and deeply personal work of maturity and illumination - a renewed raison d'être that emerges from a humble acceptance of passage, an abandonment of persona, and a restoration of human identity.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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