Press Conference (extracts)
Cannes 91
translated by David Phelps

When I was turning around this idea of making a film from The Unknown Masterpiece, what made me think that it was possible was an interview with Isabella Rossellini, in Marie-Claire, I think, about the fact that she was both an actress in the movies and a model for Lancôme. She explained that, for her, the work of a model in front of a photographer was as important as that of an actress in front of a camera. She had a connection as strong with the photographer as with the director. This was the impetus for the story: a young woman who is forced to be a model and, at first, does it as a challenge, then is taken in by the performance.

I saw, in the 60s, a number of paintings by Bernard Dufour which really made an impression on me, mainly in the way in which the figure emerged on the canvas through, even in that era, non-figurative, gestural outlines of the body. So I thought of him very quickly. Since he didn't have any exhibitions in the 70s or 80s, or I missed them, it was only then that I saw his more recent canvases, which were of the female body, fat decapitated nudes, missing the top and the bottom. It then became obvious that, if Bernard agreed, he would become the hand of Frenhofer.

There's a certain approach behind film projects that unfurl happily -- which was the case of this one, in any case concerning the script and the shooting, after that we'll see -- and Bernard was immediately to be part of this project's approach, which was also the opinion of the producer, Martine Marignac. And when I was a witness to the first meeting, in Paris, between Michel Piccoli and Bernard Dufour, face to face, it was clear that Frenhofer existed. I had already seen the setting of the Château d'Assas with its living room/salon the two chimeras (1), and we told ourselves that Frenhofer would also be a chimera, with the body and the face of Michel and the hand of Bernard.

I kept the reference to Balzac's short story because I found that Frenhofer is a pretty name and that La Belle Noiseuse is a magical title that always made me dream. Even before reading The Unknown Masterpiece, someone had talked with me and I knew that there was a painting in it called La Belle Noiseuse. We didn't call it The Unknown Masterpiece, since that tells a different story, that we couldn't preserve from Balzac. Balzac is rigorously inadaptable to cinema, to television, or to whatever. In French literature, I think that Balzac is the greatest idea-bearer. He's the equivalent of Goethe for the Germans. He's our Goethe.

We never asked Bernard Dufour to restart a drawing, or to make any attempt beforehand. I'm repelled by preliminary sketches, unless they're absolutely indispensable. First we filmed for first fifteen days or so, which correspond to the first hour of the film, the prologue, for everyone to meet everyone else. Next, we entered in the workshop where we filmed chronologically everything that happens there, to have this progression of drawings, of Frenhofer and Marianne's relations, of the relations of Michael with Bernard as much as with Emmanuelle.

It's obvious that all the first poses of Emanuelle have been determined by Bernard. It's he who offered up the three lines spoken by Michel: "Right, arms hanging, look at me, but don't stare..." Later, it was completely collective.

For me, the cinema is interesting when it's given up to a number of people. (2) It's one way of making films. I'm not saying it's the only way, nor the best, but it's the one I like, like a game, with partners, like you play Cowboys and Indians. There, it's another way of playing Cowboys and Indians.

A director doesn't put himself in danger as much as a painter in his relationship with his models, his actresses. A director is a hider. (3) He is hidden behind the camera. And I -- what's more -- I hide myself behind plenty of people, since it's my screenwriter partners, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, who have been equal parts of the adventure since the start and during the entire time of filming.

There's one sentence in the film -- I don't know if it's from Christine or from Pascal, it's their own style and it doesn't matter -- that says, "Possession, possession... Possession is impossible." Of course, a painter, a writer, a director, fantasizes over this idea of possession, but knows quite well that it doesn't exist... I'm possibly possessive with the actors, but it's to ask them for freedom, for invention...

Of course, you can watch my films as a metaphor for cinema, but I don't realize it until after the fact. Here, it was in the editing that I reflected that it was once again possibly related to cinema. Many filmmakers wish to make films that try to talk about painting. It turns out that two Frenchmen this year, with means that I suppose are different, have had this exact wish. It's a coincidence, but I believe that this coincidence corresponds to something. Painting is one of the great temptations of cinema, and at the same time it's not a temptation, since everyone knows quite well that cinema is the opposite of painting. It's an impure art, complex, between the novel, theater, painting, music, dance, etc., and it's normal that at this somewhat indeterminate place in the middle of the traditional arts, one wants to sometimes view it in a certain direction, or sometimes in another... I would love, for example, to make a film about dancing, but it would be very complicated.

Afterwards, one could view it as a metaphor for cinema. But it's not obligatory. Once again, we've tried to make a film which doesn't talk about painting, but borders on it, approaches it. That it might make a stab in the path towards painting. When the painting is really about to start, the film withdraws with respect to what's going on in Frenhofer's workshop, one passes to the other side of the table and no longer sees the work. At that moment, the film leans (4) towards Liz, Julienne, towards all the other characters, or towards the relationship between Frenhofer with Liz... The film can no longer talk about painting or then, once again, it would need to be very, very long, the time it took Cezanne to make a picture.

  1. The French word is "chimère" which translates as "pipedream," or "idle fancy" or "chimera." I think Rivette is using this vague word as a reference both to unseen paintings (why two?) and to the character himself.

  2. This is a key, but very tricky phrase: "le cinema est intèressant losque l'on se met à plusieurs." I contacted some outside help on this one, and the phrase "l'on se met à plusieurs" essentially means that it takes a number of people to perform a job, or that the job is offered up to a number of people to perform. Given Rivette's statements elsewhere, this seems exactly his sort of definition of cinema; "cinema is interesting when it's made by a bunch of people," I guess would be a less direct translation that's basically been his motto since he came up with the anti-auteurist theory. My phrasing may sound vague or like a bad translation, but I think this is one of those spots where Rivette, ever the student of Henry James, offers a definitive statement in very vague terms.

  3. Rivette's using slang! "Coward" might be better here, though the word I got from my dictionary for "planqué" is "funker," which evidently means somebody who hides.

  4. Technically, "bascule": totters, toggles, tips up, tips over.

Originally appeared in Cahiers du Cinema 445 (June 1991): p. 34. Translated by David Phelps.