France during the war is a perennial setting for filmmakers wishing to impart some quality gravity to their story. The moral stakes are high and clear, the Americans can always be relied upon for a final-act deus ex machina, and everyone just looks so glamorous. Plus, all the international cinema prizes are selected by juries who were young boys at the time, so its an easy and effortless bid for a sentimental vote. The Artist and the Model, Fernando Trueba’s 2012 film about l’occupation de la France, appears to consider itself a contender for membership in this venerable genre. But unfortunately, it’s as lifeless and contrived as an amateur model trying to hold a pose.
It has all the set pieces it could possibly want: Nazis, elderly French artists, naked and nubile résistantes. And yet it squanders it on a scanty plot that appears to serve only as justification for letting an old man — the titular artist, not the director or the assumed audience — stare at a nude girl for an hour and forty minutes.
Trueba, it seems, considered this to be some kind of a labor of love. He created the role of the sculptor with veteran French actor Jean Rochefort specficially in mind, and the woman who plays the model, Aida Folch, learned to speak French just for the project. The director dedicated the film to a recently deceased brother, a sculptor of some renown. This may be why he chose to have his impassive protagonist be a sculptor of some renown, too, but no one’s memory is well served by this muddled and self-regarding period piece. If anything, it would be better to forget altogether.
The Artist and the Model opens with elderly sculptor Marc Cros (Rochefort) on a walk in the gently wild forest of what we soon learn are the French foothills of the Pyrenees. Cros picks up a bird’s skull from the ground to consider it more closely, swiftly providing almost all the characterization and plot to come in the next hour thirty-eight. Ah, this old man contemplates life and nature with a quiet attentiveness — must be a great artist! — and so — foreshadowing! — recognizes a memento mori when he sees one. The next two shots situate us in time and place: a small village nestled by the mountains, with polished Nazi jackboots goosestepping in front of la boulangerie. It could be called deft if it weren’t just clichéd.
Out shopping with her Spanish housekeeper, Mme. Cros (Claudia Cardinale) catches sight of a young woman sleeping in a doorframe on the street. This is Mercè, a refugee of the Francoist government just over the mountains. Through wild-girl gulps of soup, Mercè explains she’s been in a camp and that she doesn’t know if her parents are dead or alive. The family Cros offers her a place to stay, though they have more than just hospitable intentions. Mercè has just the type of body M. Cros loves to sculpt.
Mercè’s initial reluctance to disrobe in front of this strange older man seems intended to function narratively as the initial conflict that gets resolved only to open out onto the real drama of the film, but there are a number of problems with the way Trueba handles it. First, the tension between Mercè and Cros is triangulated through his wife, who (unbelievably) has to explain to the younger woman what nude modeling is, and how she herself used to do it for her husband, ergo it’s fine. Next, the objections Mercè makes are so cursory and quickly dismissed that it raises questions of whether the resistance is all part and parcel of the preordained fantasy outcome, where the elderly Cros grants himself license to stare intently at the younger woman’s body, getting to know her shape so intimately he can sculpt her form out of clay.
Mercè will no longer even be herself: by exposing herself, she gives her body over to Cros to become his creation, molded as he wishes. The arrangement is an unsettling, misogynist set-up, even as it presents itself as a venerable and respectable artistic tradition.
There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong about baring one’s body, even with an age differential like that of Mercè and Cros. But for it to work as a respectful, even pleasurable relationship there has to be a measure of interest on both sides in addition to at least a mention of consent. The problem with the film’s portrayal of the artist-model relationship is that it skips over any question of Mercè’s desire. She only learns to enjoy herself, and this after she’d already been placed on the literal pedestal, for reasons that could be as much Trueba’s as Cros’ wife thanks to how little justification they’re given. The film, sadly, does no work for it.
It’s not necessary for the plot; it is the plot, but why? If the film had a lesson to impart then the life modeling would have been a titillating route on the way to that lesson. But at the end, there’s nothing. Mercè’s no better of a resistance fighter, nor has Cros accomplished anything he wasn’t introduced as already being capable of from the beginning.
Points of conflict are introduced cursorily and then dismissed: Mercè reveals that she’s been helping people cross the mountain trails into relatively freer Spain, and comes across a handsome, bearded Resistance fighter. Does Cros try to stop her, or does romance bloom between the two young antifascists? No to both. A Nazi officer appears at Cros’ house, apparently an old friend. He welcomes him in, introduces the man to Mercè and comrade, and then, with not so much as a high point of tension in the scene, our German kommandant is off to the Russian front. Cros muses, “I get the feeling I won’t see him again.” He’s right. But why did we see him in the first place?
In the movie’s defense, its camerawork is lovely, and though the south of France needs no tourist boosterism, it serves lavish rustic luxury by the antique wheelbarrow-full. Cros, having Mercè pose in a dappled wood while light frolics on her hair and shoulders, remarks that to capture the detail of every leaf in sight would take untold years. Yet Trueba’s done it in celluloid, and no doubt dropped that line in as a gauche wink at himself and his collaborators for having one-upped the fictional old man. The only question is why he would have bothered spending a day on it.
The Upside: Lovely camerawork shows off the south of France, it serves lavish rustic luxury by the antique wheelbarrow-full.
The Downside: Slow moving and painfully clichéd the film never probes too deeply. Characters are often introduced and dismissed without any purpose.
On The Side: The film was one of the pre-candidates for Spain’s foreign language film Oscar submission.