The Artist and the Model rewards the eye and the heart
Starring Jean Rochefort. In French, with English subtitles. Unrated.
Directed by Spain’s prolific Francisco Trueba, whose Oscar-winning Belle Epoque struck similarly nostalgic notes, The Artist and the Model stars the great Jean Rochefort (Ridicule, The Hairdresser’s Husband) as fictional sculptor Marc Cros, a colleague of Matisse and Cézanne living out his final days in the relative tranquillity of the French Pyrenees, lightly occupied by the Germans in midsummer 1943.
He’s looked after by his doting wife, played by no less than Claudia Cardinale, and their crusty Spanish housekeeper (Pedro Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave). In the village square, they spot beautiful Mercè (Aida Folch) and, recognizing the curvaceous, if dishevelled, young woman as a Spanish refugee who speaks passable French, bring her home for a meal and a scrub. She could be just the muse Marc needs to break his long creative block!
The setup is undeniably old-fashioned, supported by long, languorous takes and (unlike the recent Renoir) soft-toned black-and-white cinematography, with obvious nods to the more introspective works of spiritual-minded Robert Bresson and the famously apolitical François Truffaut. Scenes in which local brats fixate on the oft-naked Mercè and her bare-legged bicycle-riding specifically recall Truffaut’s breakthrough short, “Les Mistons”.
The script traffics in hoary truisms about life, art, and gender. (After some mostly asexual banter with his initially distant model, Marc declares that the only proof of god’s existence comes from women’s bodies and olive oil.) It was cowritten by the director with octogenarian Jean-Claude Carrière, who worked on Luis Buñuel’s best-known films, as well as such eros-tinged arthouse fare as Chinese Box and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Mercè doesn’t fully emerge as a real character, and a subplot involving a wounded Resistance fighter (Martin Gamet) remains, like much of the film, a sketchy extension of the aged artist’s narrowing view of the world. A final, if ambiguous, implication of violence appears to cut against the tale’s bucolic inclinations. But if accepted as an artifact from a vanishing world, this lovely Model rewards the eye, and the heart.