The Artist And The Model (El artista y la modelo)

Spain/France (2012) Dir. Fernando Trueba

World War II might not be the first backdrop one immediately thinks of for a meditation on the beauty of art but that is what Spanish director Fernando Trueba presents to us with this thoughtful outing.

Occupied France 1943 and young Spanish refugee Mercè (Aida Folch) is found sleeping rough in the streets by Lea (Claudia Cardinale) and María (Chus Lampreave), the wife and housekeeper respectively of semi-retired sculptor Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort). Lea takes Mercè home and offers her room and board in exchange for working as a nude model for Marc to help him get his inspiration back.

A story which has been told countless times before – ironically Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir released roughly at the same time as this film shares a similar plot – therefore the outcome will throw few surprises at the audience but it is how the story unfolds which is the hook.

Trueba has covered many different styles and genres in his works, even dabbling in animation for Chico & Rita, yet this French speaking film feels largely Gallic with only the faintest whiff of Trueba’s native Spain in the air. This is just due to Mercè’s presence – she is fluent in French – but with the French-Spanish border close by, a certain Spanish essence seems to permeate through into this sleepy French town.

For a film which takes the beauty of art as its central theme, the decision to present it in monochrome is an unusual one, but this boldness means we are not distracted by colour, leaving the beauty we behold as natural as possible. This is reflected in Marc’s personal relationship with art, one built on the understanding the form of the subject and not its external appearance.

In one scene, Marc shows Mercè a picture which he claims is the greatest drawing in the world. It is a small, hurriedly drawn sketch by Rembrandt depicting a group of people in a crowd. The details are not there just the outlines of the figures but their forms are enough to divine the story being told. Mercè is naturally baffled until Marc points out the perfect shape of the poses and how the direction they are facing explains so much.

This is essentially Marc’s philosophy towards sculpting. Mercè may be naked before him (and in much of her screen time) but Marc doesn’t see that – all he sees is the beauty in the shapes her body forms in the poses he sets for her. After numerous sketches, painting and basic clay modelling, nothing is working for Marc until Mercè adopts a pose whilst in a strop, which finally catches his artistic eye.

Lest we forget however that there is a war still ongoing and their small town in under Nazi Occupation. Mercè has fled from a refugee camp but her war effort doesn’t end there – she helps people cross the border into and out of Spain. One night she meets the injured Pierre (Martin Gamet) and secretly takes him in until Marc rumbles him, letting him stay as a favour to Mercè.  

Yet, Trueba stirs the pot a little by having a friend of Marc’s be a Nazi commander. Werner (Götz Otto) arrives for a visit but not to throw his weight around but to visit his favourite artist. Werner openly laments how French literature and other such art is banned in Germany and takes the moment to admire Marc’s preparatory work for his statue of Mercè as if he were in an art gallery.

The character of Marc is a curious one insofar as determining his natural persona. Is he a generous man who helps those in need or just someone who takes advantage of a situation when presented to him? He quite often barks at Mercè and scolds her for having marks and blemishes on her legs (from her nighttime endeavours) yet he sees inspiration in her, so she is cherishes by him.

He exudes warmth to all yet can be as cantankerous as the next old duffer all the while being highly respected about town. Marc is both fulfilled yet still searching for that moment of perfection; he is worldly yet cynical about life and has his own fascinating philosophy on the creation of man.

Marc may be the axis of the film but the rest of the cast are hardly insignificant, even if they are used in small doses. Lea and María are almost comic relief but provide an anchor for the aged artist, buttressed by Mercè’s role as Marc’s muse and his bridge across the generation gap.

One of the main reasons why the art theme is so prevalent in a war set story is because this project was originally dreamt up in 1990 between Trueba and his sculptor brother Maximo who dies, prompting Trueba to abandon the project. It now stands a loving tribute to Maximo shown in the impressive detailing of the sculpting process.

French veteran actor Jean Rochefort in the role of Marc richly embodies the nuances of a grizzled artist struggling to reclaim his past creative glories while settled in is quiet routines and memories of the beauty he has learned to find in the smallest of things. His doleful and white whiskered crabby exterior completes the characterisation, refusing to become a caricature.

Aida Folch delivers a layered and confident performance as Mercè, her frequent nudity being neither exploitative nor gratuitous, becoming part of a personality that is quietly stronger than her looks imply. Some may not recognise 60’s Italian set kitten Claudia Cardinale as Lea, but she has aged well and enjoys her role here, sparring comfortably with the late Chus Lampreave as bespectacled housekeeper María.   

The quiet atmosphere, black and white presentation and laconic pacing might suggest arthouse to some but beneath this, The Artist And The Model is a serene and sensitive tribute to art and beauty. Full of French whimsy this is perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.


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