The Artist and the Model (El Artista y la modelo): San Sebastian Review

Nicely elegiac, proudly old-fashioned tale of wartime passions, with veteran French star Jean Rochefort a likely award-magnet.

Jean Rochefort and Aida Folch co-star in Fernando Trueba's Spanish drama set in occupied France during World War II.

A quietly beautiful rumination on mortality and artistic inspiration that will delight patient, older audiences, Spanish drama The Artist and the Model (El Artista y la modelo) showcases a career-crowning turn from octogenarian French thespian Jean Rochefort. Set in a calm corner of occupied France in 1943, this tale of an elderly sculptor and his flinty young muse sees Spain’s Oscar-winning Fernando Trueba making a fruitful return to live action after co-directing and co-writing the 2010 Academy Award-nominated, Goya-winning animated film Chico & Rita.

Inspired partly by episodes in the later lives of Picasso and Matisse, Trueba’s low-key, monochrome fable exerts a more rarefied and niche appeal than that jazzy cartoon romance, but the combination of strong subject matter, tastefully handled nudity and a classy cast should lure discerning patrons in both France and Spain.

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Overseas distribution prospects are tougher to call: much will depend on how it fares with the jury at San Sebastian, where it premiered in competition. The eyecatcher is the man Terry Gilliam cast as Don Quixote in his famously unfinished epic: the deftly dry and subtly nuanced Rochefort, making a welcome return to the big screen after a four-year absence and an obvious contender for the Best Actor Silver Shell.

A crucial boost would also be provided were The Artist and the Model to be named as Spain’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscars, a prize which Trueba’s Belle Epoque won in 1994. His collaboration with living-legend screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière is, along with Blancanieves and Group 7, one of final three contenders for the submission and the committee announces its verdict on Sept. 27, the very day before the picture goes on general release.

The French launch isn’t until March 13, by which time we’ll know if The Artist and the Model has emulated Belle Epoque or is closer in destiny to Trueba’s The Dancer and the Thief, which in 2009 left San Sebastian without major honors, but was then named as Spain’s Oscar submission, in the end failing to make the final five.

Carrière and Rochefort,  along with co-star Claudia Cardinale, have all been in the business for more than five decades and they bring a depth of experience to the project that can’t be faked or fabricated. And while Trueba may only be 57, he goes about his craft with a kind of restrained, steady and unobtrusive professionalism that now seems decidedly old-school. Indeed, it comes as a surprise to learn that cinematographer Daniel Vilar, whose black-and-white, widescreen, 35mm images are suffused with a bygone atmosphere, is making his DP debut here.

In a story that avoids the kind of melodramatic incident which it could easily have embraced, we have plenty of time to appreciate how Vilar captures the alluring beauty both of the specific geographical backdrops and of the human female form. Internationally renowned sculptor Marc Cros (Rochefort) now dwells quietly with his wife (Cardinale) in a “calm corner” of rural France, not far from the border with a Spain which in 1943 is still recovering after the Civil War. From one of Catalonia’s prison camps escapes Merce (Aida Folch), a twentysomething farm-girl, who's keen to help the area’s anti-Fascist elements as the Allies start gaining the upper hand elsewhere in Europe.

Merce rekindles Marc’s energies in more ways than one, the picture’s drama depending less on the violent political backdrop and more on the inevitably intimate nature of relationship between artist and model. Folch – best known in Spain as a regular on historical soap Tell Me How It Happened -- makes the necessarily strong impact as a spirited, unsophisticated lass whose physical attributes reawaken the genius of a man who airily speaks of “my friend Cezanne.” 

Trueba and Carrière generally downplay the Pygmalion aspects of their story, but there’s one outstanding scene – reminiscent of a sequence in Christian Petzold’s recently Oscar-submitted Barbara, coincidentally enough - in which Marc encourages Merce to appreciate a Rembrandt sketch he describes as “a masterpiece with no pretenses at being a masterpiece.” The Artist and the Model likewise has no such pretenses, and with reason – it’s a mature, modestly-scaled coming together of some notable talents, but hardly one for the ages.

Venue: San Sebastian - Donostia Film Festival, Spain (Competition), September 23, 2012.

Production company: Fernando Trueba P.C.
Cast: Jean Rochefort, Aida Folch, Claudia Cardinale, Götz Otto, Chus Lampreave, Martin Gamet, Christian Sinniger
Director: Fernando Trueba
Screenwriters: Jean-Claude Carrière, Fernando Trueba
Producer: Cristina Huete
Director of photography: Daniel Vilar
Production designer: Pilar Revuelta
Costume designer: Lala Huete
Editor: Marta Velasco

Sales agent: 6 Sales, Madrid
No MPAA rating, 105 minutes