This review was published in March when the film played the Miami International Film Festival.
The Artist and the Model (El artista y la modelo) is the quietest, most austere film Fernando Trueba has directed. It may also be his most personal. Although he’s usually associated with colorful movies filled with music and vibrancy ( Chico & Rita, The Girl of Your Dreams, Belle Epoque), Trueba shot this film in gorgeous black and white and used no musical score. Here, silence is eloquent, and images do most of the talking.
Set in the French Pyrenees during World War II, the movie centers on Marc (the great Jean Rochefort), an aging sculptor who lives with his wife Lea (Claudia Cardinale, still vivacious) and their Spanish housekeeper (Chus Lampreave, the source of much of the film’s humor). When Lea crosses paths with Merce (Aida Folch), a homeless refugee from Spain, she recognizes the girl’s great beauty and brings her home, hoping to reawaken her husband’s artistic spirit.
In exchange for room and board, Merce agrees to pose nude for Marc, who barely speaks to her other than telling her how to pose. At first, Merce is understandably nervous. Gradually, though, she begins to understand what Marc is looking for — a vision that will compel him to sculpt — and slowly becomes his muse.
In turn, Marc begins to open up to the young woman, taking a simple Rembrandt sketch and showing her what makes it great art, name-dropping Matisse and Cézanne and, in a glorious monologue that Rochefort totally nails, laying out the two reasons why he believes God exists.
There isn’t much plot in The Artist and the Model, nor do the expected things happen (no, the pair does not fall in love). Instead, there are incidents: Marc catches a group of boys spying on the nude model. Merce brings home a soldier she helps get across the Spanish border, and a German friend makes an unexpected visit on his way to the front lines.
The Artist and the Model is a contemplative ode to creativity and imagination, to the ability to convey meaning and feeling through art. Trueba chooses his shots carefully, allowing us to see Merce through Marc’s eyes and helping us understand the artistic impulse, which can be indomitable and stubborn. It is also what keeps people like Marc living: He must be able to create or a part of him dies.