Some may be put off by the idea of a four-hour French film in which an old artist, Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), living in the country with his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), attempts one final painting. They may reconsider when they hear that Frenhofer's model, Marianne, played by Emmanuelle Béart (Manon of the Spring), spends most of those hours au naturel. The film itself is both more accessible and less titillating than that curt précis suggests.
Director and co-writer Jacques Rivette (Paris Belongs to Us) makes films that are at once invigoratingly experimental and maddeningly pretentious. This is no exception. The sexual tension between Marianne (a noiseuse is a woman who drives men to distraction) and the Frenhofers is drearily overfamiliar. But when Rivette moves into Frenhofer's studio (the hands of artist Bernard Dufour are used in close-ups), the film is a haunting meditation on art and beauty. Frenhofer sketches first in pen, then moves to charcoal and oil, twisting Marianne's body to reflect his vision. Piccoli and Béart are electrifying combatants, and Rivette keeps their duel of wills brimming with the pleasures of the unexpected.