There’s a pleasing lack of didacticism to Fernando Trueba’s dozy black-and-white arthouse film The Artist And The Model, which presents the relationship between the titular characters, and lets audiences see what they want. While the eponymous artist himself has plenty to say about his chosen field, the film doesn’t necessarily back him up, and it doesn’t engage with the usual tropes about artists and muses. It’s a modest, reserved character piece that doesn’t push an agenda. The problem is that it comes across as if it lacks opinions, rather than holding them back.
Its story takes place in 1943 occupied France, in the Pyrenees mountain range along the Spanish border. There, tucked far away from the war, once-famous sculptor Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) muddles along in undisturbed isolation, with his wife Léa (Claudia Cardinale) and owlish, elderly housekeeper María (Chus Lampreave) tending to his minimal needs. When Léa and María encounter a young woman sleeping rough in the marketplace, they bring her back to Marc as a prospective model, exactly as they might bring him a bag of whatever fruit looked best that day. Mercè (Aida Folch) is an escapee from a French refugee camp, and while the film only minimally explores her background, she comes across as naïve but canny, and skittish as a wild animal. When Léa offers her room, board, and pay for modeling, Mercè acquiesces, but with obvious suspicion about the requirement that she strip down for the sessions, and with the cringing but volatile docility of an abused pet trying to decide whether to run or bite when the hand descends for the inevitable next blow. Marc, meanwhile, has run dry artistically, and has no interest in comforting or relaxing her; he simply wants to find his muse again, regardless of what face she wears.
While The Artist And The Model is about an artist rediscovering his creative passion through a vibrant young woman, it’s remarkably distant and bloodless about the process. It takes no interest in sentiment, melodrama, or the sexual passion that’s often a staple of movies about art. Rochefort plays Marc as removed and grudging; the character openly explains that he thinks of his models as mere impersonal channels through which he could potentially access the feminine divine. He discusses Mercè with Léa in dryly clinical terms: “Her breasts are like small pyramids. That’s good.” When he’s done for the day, he walks off without a word, ignoring Mercè’s questions; when he actually gets an erection, he’s furious. Meanwhile, Mercè slowly relaxes, then blossoms, then starts taking her own interest in the world, largely through helping a stranded member of the French resistance.
Trueba’s previous film, Chico & Rita, was a Best Animated Feature nominee at the 2012 Academy Awards; it’s a riot of color, emotion, and energy, with dynamic camera movement and an integral, swooning musical score. The Artist And The Model is its opposite in all ways, as though the previous film sucked up two movies’ worth of life and energy, and left Trueba’s latest as the husk. The closest Artist comes to big emotion is during a scene where Marc shows Mercè his prized possession, a simple Rembrandt sketch which he praises as “the best drawing in the world.” Describing its finer qualities, he talks entirely about line and dynamism; she herself sees only the suggested story of a child taking its first steps, surrounded by excited family.
That attitude toward the subjectivity of art bears out with The Artist And The Model: It’s so unemotive that Trueba could have designed it as a Rorschach blot, with many possible meanings that say more about the viewer than the text. While the script notes in passing that Marc was a contemporary of Matisse, Cézanne, and Durain, it makes no particular attempt to sell viewers on the quality of his art, which seems simple and anonymous. Nor does it delve into Marc or Mercè’s inner lives, beyond noting the former’s mild surprise that the latter has one. Their relationship is mutually beneficial in a low-key way, but it’s unclear who gains more. Trueba and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière (also the co-writer of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object Of Desire) reveal more about Léa’s past as a celebrated, coveted model (appropriate, given Cardinale’s history as an international sex symbol) than about Mercé’s.
Trueba and Carrière do stack their deck subtly, through Marc’s cold disapproval whenever Mercè expresses joy, and through a dispiriting speech where he claims the best way to deal with the war is to “remain calm in a small corner, eating some potatoes while there’s some left.” While he’s the film’s detached intellectual voice, Mercè is its less vocal heart, its access to that feminine divine: She’s the striver who rebounds from her miseries and makes a difference in the world, instead of curling up in a corner. But the film neither oversells nor spells out this position. The lack of emphasis or affect often makes it feel sleepy, but at least it’s never gushy. It lets viewers decide whether to focus on its craft or its intentions, whether to play Marc or Mercé, and to conclude for themselves which point of view is more valid and more rewarding.