All is fair in love and war, Fernando Trueba’s The Artist And The Model gradually hews out the standoff relationship between the creator and his muse.
And God Created Woman by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After firm Spanish staples such as Belle Epoque, Fernando Trueba has turned his hand to more avant garde fare such as the animated Chico & Rita and now the black and white The Artist And The Model. In both French and Spanish, Trueba’s film takes place during the German Occupation of during World War Two in a small town in the French Basque close to the Spanish border. It’s a bilingualism that allows Trueba to unite Jean Rochefort as the elderly artist with young model Aida Folch, but also European stars of the screen such as Claudia Cardinale, as artist Marc Cros’s former nude model and wife, Almodovar darling Chus Lampreave and Götz Otto as the art-loving German officer. And it’s a Europudding délice of snappy, well-acted scenes – not always consequential and a little flaky, but centred round a very simple story and easy on the eye.
Amidst the women’s bare legs, jack boots march across the town square as artist Marc Cros sips at an espresso at the Cafe de la Paix. Having abandoned a Spain lost to Franco, Mercè washes her scratched legs at the fountain, where she’s approached by the artist’s wife Léa. In exchange for food and out-of-town lodging, Mercè is persuaded to set her Catholic morals aside and pose nude for the artist, a renowned sculptor looking for a great masterpiece. Overcoming her inhibitions, Mercè struts about the place naked by day, ogled by the village schoolboys and by night smuggles resistants across the Spanish border. But her peaceful idyll is threatened when one of the injured maquisards recuperating in her attic room comes face to face with the visiting Nazi captain.
Almost shockingly apolitical (or even anti-political) with the artist and his model squirrelled away in his mountain hideaway away from the realities of the far-off war and the French town below occupied by Nazi soldiers, Marc is as indifferent to his good friend Werner’s military career as he is to the wounded resistant’s safety. And while Mercè is politically engaged, ferrying partisans across the border, the relationship between the artist and the model is one of stark opposites – age and youth, man and woman, light and dark. And in the artist’s opening walk through the Basque countryside, as Marc picks up a gnarled piece of wood, inspects it contemplatively before throwing it away again – it’s a warning of the fickle nature of the artist and the ultimate end facing Mercè. But as the camera replicates through its framing the artist’s studious glances – armpits and legs dissected into frozen images and mere shapes, Mercè becomes a desexed muse, cooly and objectively observed by the creator’s vision.
While she laughs (at her natural prowess at catching trout in a pool), Marc looks on sternly, businesslike and terse. For him it’s a question of completing one last great work before he dies, seeking to create emotion from the shape or tilt of an arm. Or like God, to create from clay a living being – a natural emanation of life, like a tree growing through the rocks. And while in Marc’s revision of the Creation myth, it’s woman (and her body) that is the proof of divine love, it’s man (the empty clay vessel) that does the making. Of course, there’s some confusion between the creator’s divine love for his muse and a rather more profane titillation, Marc finally entertaining an erection after months of posing. For in the end, nature is triumphant – Mercè the woman appearing to the artist rather than the stone made flesh. She is the key to his masterpiece, but finally it’s not the sculpture but the model he wants to remember – his great work reduced to a love token.
At times clumsy, heavy-handed or gauche, in its retro telescopic vignettes or going nowhere scenes, Fernando Trueba’s The Artist And The Model is a monument to artistic ambition, hopeful that its senile (and monochrome) monumentalism will make a masterpiece. Unfortunately, it’s more like a biography – 400 pages for a life in which nothing happens. But with great performances from its two leads and an unusually constellated stellar cast, The Artist And The Model is a southern fancy, handsome, roughly hewn and occasionally delicious.
The Artist And The Model is released on 13th September 2013 in the UK