by CAINE BIRD
Wednesday 10th September 2013
Clay, paint and a camera are all tools of an artist. Elegant and detailed, The Artist and the Model (2013) is a divinely sculpted and romantic observation on beauty, nature and mortality. Fernando Trueba, director of the Oscar-winning Belle Epoque (1992) and Oscar-nominated animated feature Chico & Rita (2010), treats the audience to a poetic tale enlivened by espionage, love affairs and death and sophisticated characters that spring with life with their expressive performances.
War-torn and ravaged, Europe is submerged in a Second World War. The once revered sculptor Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) has exiled himself to a desolate art studio to rekindle his bond to art. In German-occupied Southern France, Cros is in need of inspiration and yearns to once again capture beauty in his art. Young and seemingly innocent Mercè (Aida Folch) becomes Cros’s subject, model and inspiration. As time consumes Cros’s body and the world he inhabits, the frustrated sculptor finds immortality through art.
With a weathered face, concave cheeks, fixed eyes and a coarse and heavy voice speaking out from behind a thick and unkempt moustache, Rochefort’s subtle performance conveys the character’s complexities and instils a sense of history into the lonely sculptor. His aged complexion, worn but rigid posture, the slowness but sureness of his touch and the gentility of his caressing hand as he moulds his art hints at the character’s past. Cros’s frustration is communicated through sudden bursts of rage followed by silent retreat as his body surrenders to the moment. Trueba’s intention – to capture “a portrait of the artist at the very moment of creation” – is reflected in the vivid cinematography, which creates a tranquil setting unhindered by the conflicts of the harsh wartime reality.
Cros and Mercè’s relationship captures the profound trust that exists between an artist and his subject. Like the relationship between peace and war, or youth and old age or even inspiration and hopelessness, Trueba uses balance between opposites to create wholeness. To Cros, Mercè offers a glimmer of light in a dark time. Her complexion encourages his optimism and he comes to crave her presence, much like Gelin’s (Dilan Aksüt) youth inspired some sentimentality in the broken Damat (Ilyas Salman) in Night of Silence/Lal gece (2012). In capturing the undefined curves, the smooth lines and stark contrast of her body in relation to his own, Cros once again finds hope. Mercè’s wondering eyes, her youthful energy and her pure image counterbalance Cros’s aged and rough exterior. She brings order to his fractured world. Her smooth and enticing curves appease his rough, crackling texture. Shots of Mercè burrowing her face into her knees or her slightly bent legs or the soft arc of her back accentuate her character’s innocence and seduction. Like the Adam and Eve that Cros invokes in a lengthy monologue, Mercè completes the scene; she restores beauty to the Garden of Eden.
Cros and Mercè are clearly the centrepiece of Treuba’s grand design, which means other characters linger, underdeveloped, in the shadows of Cros’s past. Léa (Claudia Cardinale), Cros’s aged model-turned-wife, is sadly underplayed and largely ignored in favour of the relationship between artist and subject. Léa is nothing more than an old and forgotten muse; to Cros, she is a just another sculpture in his collection and a token of the past. The groups of curious children swarming the windows of Cros’s studio to gawk at the nude model, or the passionate German admirer of Cros’s work and the intruding member of the French resistance who engages in an affair with Mercè, are little more than elaborate decorations to Cros’s story.
The bond that exists between Cros and Mercè underlines the apparent connection between beauty, life, and even death. As the aging Cros enters his final chapter, Mercè becomes a token of new beginnings and, ultimately, of life. Beauty, then, is understood not as a material object but an experience. The soothing black and white image paired with a natural soundtrack scored by the bellow of bells and the faint hums of laughter from distant children blissfully illustrates the cycle of life.
Whether model or performer, the body is an accessory that Trueba captures, Cros craves and Mercè embodies. Endearing and beautiful, The Artist and the Model offers a cathartic viewing experience. The profound characters are complemented by subtle yet complicated performances. Trueba’s romantic flair for the scenic and love for his characters offers a harmonised paradise; his film is quite the antidote to the loud, excess of the mainstream. As the lone Cros stumbles through time, with a slight falter in his step and stillness to his movements, he hopes only to find a glimmer of inspiration, success and beauty and this quiet, peaceful foreign drama treats its viewers to it.