A film of lovely moments and quiet reflection, director Fernando Trueba’s “The Artist and the Model” takes a tender gaze at the creative process. Avoiding the hot-blooded emotional histrionics of most movie portraits of artists, this is a gentle picture emphasizing discipline, hard work and patience.
Set in occupied France during the waning days of World War II, the film follows (fictional) sculptor Marc Cros, a world renowned pal of Matisse and Cezanne. Played by the elegantly gaunt, poker-faced Jean Rochefort, Marc has been suffering a nasty case of artist’s block ever since the war broke out, moping around his country house to the dismay of his wife, Lea (Claudia Cardinale, still sparkling at age 75.)
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While buying groceries in town one afternoon, Lea spots a curvaceous young beauty bathing in a fountain. Merce (Aida Folch) is a Catalan refugee with nowhere to go, so she takes up Lea’s offer to come stay at their house — and perhaps work as a nude model for her husband. Sure enough, the brusque bombshell sparks something long dormant in the artist.
Merce’s personality might be a bit rough around the edges, but Marc is mesmerized by her body, which cinematographer Daniel Vilar regards with a reverence both appropriate and appreciated. The two are soon working together on an arduous development process, from sketches to paintings to clay models, before a sculpture can finally emerge. They’re occasionally interrupted by flocks of peeping schoolboys, who have heard wild rumors about a naked lady in the woods.
The quietest film you’ll see this year, “The Artist and the Model” has no musical score, settling instead for distant birdsong to complement the contemplation. Shooting in shimmery black and white cinemascope, Trueba keeps the frame locked down in classically composed still shots, lending the rare camera movements an impact that feels almost seismic.
Of course, there's still a war going on, and when Merce insists on providing shelter for a wounded French Resistance fighter (Martin Gamet) it’s a treat to watch Rochefort’s crusty deadpan ever so slightly begin to crack. The actor excels at stillness like few others, which makes for a wonderful contrast in his scenes with the vivacious Cardinale.
Sadly, the film’s final moment is misjudged. Trueba and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carierre close on a symbolic gesture that makes a certain thematic sense, but is way out of step with the rest of the movie’s delicate sensibility.