I watched the four hours over two days (more films should have intermissions) and enjoyed almost every second. Exhaustive is probably the right word to use for this study of the creative process, in that there is no one process being depicted, no one reading you could apply to the characters and relationships presented. Instead the artist and model set-up serves as a springboard for multiple elliptical essays on the subject.
Unsurprisingly, the one that struck me most is the confrontation at the end of the first half. Frenhofer becomes dominating, forcing the (always naked) Marianne into increasingly twisted poses. He talks of breaking her bones, and there are uncomfortable sexual undertones coursing through his mania. But then he starts talking about her flesh as a portal to galaxies and black holes. He is attempting to stamp his authority not only on women's bodies but reality itself. Everything must become an object under the control of his paintbrush.
Marianne at one point recoils at being treated like a doll, but submits immediately afterwards and apologises. Why does she go through with it? Shortly after Frenhofer's existentialist rant, she laughs in his face, and he storms out. But she forces him to continue. The extraordinary beginning of the film (one of the best opening sequences I have watched) introduces her as a consummate mask-wearer. Maybe she's partly seduced by Frenhofer's talk of truth in art, a window into her self that she can't look through on her own. Or maybe as a writer she using him for material as much as he is using her. After all, the film begins and ends with her voiceover – she more than anyone is its author. Perhaps she is the trouble-maker, the nutcase, that spins everyone around her fingers for the diversion of a (foreign, ignorant) audience – just like the English tourists the film opens with.
But then it turns out the painting is a masterpiece. In Frenhofer's definition: it captures a lifetime in a single image. Frenhofer's wife Liz marks the back with a cross, and its composition does feel like a kind of crucifixion. And like Christ, it has to be walled up in a tomb. The idea of it emerges in wings of crimson from the blue nude Frenhofer fobs off to the public – streaks of blood cracking open the human shell. Just three characters (a trinity?) see the miracle unveiled, we only glimpse a bit of it. The Balzac short story the film is based on apparently haunted Cézanne and Picasso. Here it's Marianne more than anyone that haunts the film, denying us answers, but teasing us with the possibility of miracles.