Posing, by Scott Nye
The Artist and the Model is an old man film, through and through. In several respects, it has the hallmarks that make the accidental genre so satisfying – a certain patience, mixed with the fascination of even the smallest activities, pervades the picture. A walk in the woods is not an existential journey, as it would be in a young man’s film, but just a leisurely stroll. Director Fernando Trueba is content to long for youth, for the younger, more driven protagonists to exist somewhat outside his central narrative, about a sculptor trying to reclaim a bit of magic before he dies. In this sense, however, because such little attention is accorded her own journey (her backstory and even present activities remain somewhat sketchy), the titular model remains something of an object. She is there to be observed, directed, lusted after. She fascinates, but is not inherently fascinating. The order of the title is not incidental.
In the summer of 1943, France is still under German occupation. Fictional sculptor Marc Cros (Jean Rocefort) has different concerns. He has not produced a work in some time, but the recent arrival of Mercé (Aida Folch), a homeless refugee, has stoked his juices, if you’ll pardon the vulgarity of the expression. She agrees to work as a model for him, and though her inhibitions regarding the required nudity are dropped just a step behind her clothes, his regarding any sort of emotional openness take much more time. Their evolving relationship, excluding any sexual component, develops in a very lovely fashion, culminating in a handful of truly gorgeous scenes that are among the more beautiful I’ve seen all year.
Refreshing as it is to see a modern film in black and white (and anamorphic widescreen, at that), Trueba and first-time cinematographer Daniel Vilar’s compositions and movements tend more towards the economic than the evocative. Trueba reaches for some vivid connections, as Marc encounters various natural objects with qualities not dissimilar from Mercé’s more obvious ones, but Vilar’s lighting reduces, rather than enhances. It is no gift to ensure a woman like Folch remains attractive; it’s their visual approach to everything else that comes up short.
However, Trueba’s search for the beauty in small things is not without triumph. The scene on which I have fixated, and which I doubt will be far from my mind for quite some while, has Marc explain the entire theory of art (at least how I’ve come to understand it) via a sketch by Rembrandt. Bolts of Marc’s complete admiration for the work, and especially “the idea” as he terms it, escape his placid exterior. It’s a ferry ride across the river separating the intellect from the emotion, giving us a vantage point usually reserved for the likes of Abbas Kiarostami.
It is not to last, only to occasionally resurface. The bulk of The Artist and the Model is a very content examination of process, as Marc works through numerous “rough drafts” before landing on a final idea. A very poorly-managed subplot involving the French resistance (and Mercé’s barely-sketched relation to it) is peppered throughout. Rochefort’s performance is quite remarkable, his heavy breathing (not that kind, pervs) a constant presence, immediately indicating the wear on him even simple activities are beginning to take. Though his crotchety-to-kindly transformation is familiar, Rochefort’s subtle gestures towards each end makes the transition pass smoothly. An emotionally climactic scene between he and Folch that plays without a single word between them is at once a summation and a whole new chapter, raising questions that are never answered, exposing a vulnerability never questioned.