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Film Review

'The Artist and the Model': Less Is More

Richard Schickel
Contributor
Richard Schickel, whose celebrated and prolific career spans 50 years, has been the film critic for Time and Life magazines, has written more than 20 books and has produced, written and directed numerous…
Richard Schickel

It’s undeniably true that Aida Folch, playing a young escapee from a World War II German prison camp is nude — fetchingly so — for a great deal of “The Artist and the Model.” It is equally true that your reporter, dutifully called to observe this delightful phenomenon, was on hand at an early showing to provide such additional commentary as the film might require. Imagine his surprise when he found himself quite taken up with this leisurely, slightly overlong, but never lazy, movie.

It is the work of Spanish director Fernando Trueba, and the script was co-written by filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s longtime collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere. It is about the relationship of an aging sculptor, Marc (played by French minimalist Jean Rochefort, who is in the great tradition of Jean Gabin and Spencer Tracy — an actor who seems to do nothing, never bullies, and yet holds the screen with effortless authority). He is nearing the end of his career, which seems largely — if not exclusively — to have been devoted to female nudes. He wants to make some last statement on this topic, though he doesn’t seem to know exactly what that might be. Something along the lines of “eternal feminine” would be my guess. He does sense that Folch, playing Merce, can be the instrument of his need. That’s largely because she’s a blank slate — good instincts, as it turns out, but totally innocent about the stuff that’s rattling around in his mind.

I suppose you could say that her nudity liberates her. She can be playful. She can be sober. Most important, since she has to be quiet when she’s posing, she has no alternative but to think her thoughts, which turn out to be slightly more complicated than she (or we) imagined they might be. Their relationship is — up to a last, thank God moment — chaste. Which is not to say that they are not without the stray, lubricious thought, pretty much sternly suppressed. There is a great deal of drawing (and tearing up — a rarity in movies about artists, I find), as Marc seeks his elusive Big Idea. But he has a good-natured wife (Claudia Cardinale, and welcome back I must say) to keep him on the increasingly painful path of righteousness.

Otherwise not much “happens” — certainly not much of a melodramatic nature. A downed American flyer intrudes on their idyll for a while. Marc’s close friend, ironically a German officer who is writing a book about him, happens by and the artist senses an air of doom about him (the Russian front is looming). The model absents herself from their isolated aerie to conduct escapees across the nearby Spanish border, but whatever heroics that entails are not shown.

Eventually, Marc completes a handsome representation of her — rather conventionally pretty I must say — and she complains about the resemblance, which irritates him. She’s not supposed to be representative, she’s supposed to be — well — the abstraction he was all along seeking.

It’s clear, at the end, that there will be no more sculpture — nothing left to say. She thinks she will go on modeling and he gives her a letter of introduction to some rather impressive friends and she pedals off (on a bike she borrows from him) to her unknown fate. His is more grim, but in its way as definitive as it can be. It’s perhaps easy to make too much of a film like “The Artist and the Model.” But it’s also easy to make too little of it — and I’d rather run the prior risk. It’s minor, of course. But it’s also well made, well acted, intelligently written and more intricate emotionally than it first appears. It is, above all, likable — one of those quiet surprises that resonates more than you think it will.

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