The Artist and The Model, a film by Fernando Trueba. This beautiful elegiac film is the absolute opposite of most of what is being shown in theatres. And on account of that it is something like an antidote to all that is jazzed-up, noisy, violent, emotional, reactive and hair-triggered. One is lead into the film by choice as opposed to being hijacked by special effects or gimmickery. Shot in black and white in the south of France - Perpignan, to be precise - the light is always perfectly dappled. The year is 1943 and WWII is still going on but less obviously in the countryside where an aging sculptor and his wife live in rustic, picturesque perfection.
Not very much happens and yet a world is created between the artist and the model who know nothing of each other at the beginning of the film. The model, Merce (Aida Folch), a young waif, is noticed sleeping on the street in town by the artist’s wife, Lea, an elegant older lady, played by Claudia Cardinale, who recognizes something of herself in the young girl, when she was an artist’s model many years ago. She befriends her and offers her a bath and a meal at home where she lives with her artist husband, Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) As she had anticipated, the old man responds to her physical charms. She is offered room and board and payment to pose for the old man, who has not worked for quite some time.
The girl is reticent, unworldly and somewhat suspicious of the whole arrangement -having no idea of what a model does. But she seems to have no other options and accepts. She is shown to the studio where she will be staying. It has clearly fallen into disuse and is cobwebby, dusty and spookily filled with white figures of women - many of them lifesize. They awkwardly begin a routine of work which quickly seems to assume an air of urgency. The old man seems to realize that this will be his last gasp and the renewed energy which he is experiencing will not be available for long. There is a charming moment when he confesses to his wife that he has experienced an erotic arousal while with Merce.
When he discovers that she is secretly helping refugees cross the border to Spain we learn exactly how apolitical and unconcerned he is with the war or politics. This is a man who believes only in the religion of art and the pursuit of beauty. There are a few dissertations on the ultimate salvation of man being through beauty and art and the perfection of the female. He holds man in low esteem - believing that God created woman and that man is the offspring of God and woman - not a direct creation of God.
The production of the final work of art is a monumental figure of Merce sitting in a pensive reclining position, (based on a work of August Maillol). We also know that he has been working with a marble artist friend on his own gravestone. Both are completed at the same time. Merce is allowed to return to Spain and his wife has left for a trip to the city and the artist has completed his work and his life. He sits in the beautiful dappled light with a slight smile on his elegant, wonderfully crinkled face and lets go of his life.
The film is filled with so much gorgeousness. The cinematographer, Daniel Vilar, has made enough beautiful pans around the body of the naked Merce to create a compendium of all of the best nude still photography. Any frame could stand on its own. Aida Folch has worked with Trueba since she was fourteen. And when he asked her if she could speak French and she said no. He told her about wanting to make this film, written by Jean-Claude Carriere (That Obscure Object of Desire). She called him back a year later speaking French with a Catalan accent, having gone to France for six months to learn the language. At which point he initiated the project. This was fortuitous for them and for us. This is a real beauty.
Review by Belle McIntyre