The last few years have seen some films return to cinematic styles and techniques from the past. While using aspects of design and execution from the present day, their influences enthusiastically embrace cinema’s early days in terms of narrative and visual stylisation. Blancanieves (2012) and The Artist (2011) spring to mind – both received great acclaim. The Artist and the Model (El artista y la modelo ) is set during World War 2 and its black and white cinematography is coupled with a sound design that reflects the European cinema of the time it depicts.
Mercè (Aida Folch) is a political prisoner and has escaped from Spain, crossing the border into France. These are traumatic times for everyone, as France is occupied by the Nazis even as her homeland has endured its own tragedies. She has been living on the streets but is offered food and shelter by an old lady called Léa Cros (Claudia Cardinale). Léa recognises that the attractive young woman could be just what her elderly husband Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) could be looking for. Marc is an artist – a sculptor – and Léa recognises that Mercè would be very suitable as a model, as indeed Léa herself was many decades ago, when she had first met her lover. Mercè’s employment, removing her clothes and posing for the old man is a totally new experience for her and she needs to be aware that – to the artist – her beauty and nudity are part of the necessity of creation and does not form a part of some other, less innocent, motive for the old man. Mercè feels she has a wider purpose than simple survival or inspiring an artist and needs to find a balance between art, existence and duty. And Marc, despite his old age, cannot resist creating his final sculpture.
The Artist and the Model is a gentle character drama set in a time of turmoil. Although the focus lies with the two central characters the piece is rounded out by introducing us to the community in which they live. Naturally the artist’s nude creates interest among some of the populace of the small town, especially with the local young boys who want to see a naked girl and this provides a balance of humour which contrasts with the issues of the war. When German officer Werner (Götz Otto) arrives unexpectedly at Marc’s house, both Mercè and the young man she is hiding are fearful of discovery, but Werner is simply an art enthusiast who wishes to converse with an old friend. Issues concerning culture, art, literary destruction (possession of books becomes an intrinsic problem not only to Werner but also to Mercè) are raised and somehow this reflects the way that German intellectuals accepted the Reich in order to determine their own survival. Werner and Marc know each other because of Marc’s popularity amongst the art-loving classes in Germany, and Werner is still trying to maintain his interest in spite of his duties as a soldier.
Fernando Trueba (also the co-writer) depicts a gentle society living in a tempestuous time, showing the friendship develop between the artist and his model and makes full use of the locations. His decision to use black and white film not only reflects the standard European cinematic format of the time but also the sketches that Marc creates as he explores his creativity and the best way to portray Mercè in the finished sculpture. Mercè must pose in the lake as Marc constructs his charcoal and pencil compositions to get different perspectives and scale, with inevitable confusion of clothing and consequences of posing in the outside world. Nature plays a large role in this film, accentuated by the use of cinematographic shots of trees and birds that aim to show a life distanced slightly from the troubles of war.
Overall Fernando Trueba has made a warm film about art and artists which, while appealing to those who like art or are artists, offers a wider perspective of an entrancing story about an unusual relationship.
The Artist and the Model is released on DVD on 25th November.