Blu-ray Review: The Artist and The Model (2012)

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Original Artist: El Artista y la Modelo

While the rest of the world is fixated on the increasing tensions and escalating dangers of the Second World War, Jean Rochefort’s renowned sculptor Marc Cros would rather spend the twilight of his life trying to pinpoint the pitch-perfect lightning in a bottle-like idea to ignite the creative spark he needs to produce what could very well be his final masterpiece.

When his former model turned wife and lifetime muse Lea (played by Claudia Cardinale) spots Merce (Aida Folch), a sensual yet mysterious young beauty rinsing herself off in the fountain of their local village square situated near the border of France and Spain, she invites the girl to lunch.

Upon discovering that she’s escaped from a Spanish refugee camp, Lea decides to give her refuge on their land. Offering her something beyond mere food, clothing and shelter, Lea provides Merce with an opportunity to get back on her feet, arranging for her to model for her husband in the hill top studio that he hasn’t set foot in since before the war began with the desire that Merce will get Marc back on his artistic footing as well.

Having recognized in Merce’s figure a similar aesthetic appeal as the one her husband has always gravitated to in his strongest works, Lea hopes her female intuition will pay off and that somehow this intriguing young woman who doesn’t know the first thing about art will have within her the ability to knock down the walls that have blocked Marc from creative productivity for so long.

A quietly powerful film that’s filled with sumptuous frame compositions that if removed from the reels would be suitable for museum display, Belle Epoque director Fernando Trueba’s mesmerizing cinematic contemplation of art and life becomes even more bewitching thanks to its arresting black and white cinematography that's heightened all the more on Blu-ray.

While obviously it's a timely nod to the World War II setting, it’s nonetheless a curious choice to ignore the thousands of shades available in the color palette (particularly given some of the film’s dialogue that pays tribute to the light, colors and hues of nature) and instead focus only on life lived in two stark shades.

Yet this bold risk pays off beautifully, making you pay even greater attention to the characters, the dialogue (or more accurately, the large lack thereof) as well as the subtext in between. For had the cinematographer captured the already luscious backdrops of the European countryside, we may have gotten lost in the gorgeous landscape versus Cros’s description of the same, which in turn reveals volumes about the character, the way he lives his life and sees the world.

While The Artist and the Model is a celebration of the mysterious creative process including the complicated relationship that can develop between an artist and his muse, the film is admittedly rather slow to establish a decent rhythm, with which it builds to a true crescendo midway through its 105 minute running time.

And although your patience is rewarded with this overall masterful effort by Trueba that was posthumously dedicated to two individuals including his sculptor brother, it’s nonetheless a film that’s not going to appeal to everyone.

One of those distinctly European endeavors in the same vein as I Am Love, Trueba’s Artist is far less concerned with a straightforward three-act structure and traditional narrative than one that relies on character to move the story along.

Although the eponymous model is rather painfully underdeveloped in the film at least until the roughly one hour mark when we’re offered some truly fascinating answers to questions that had risen to the surface earlier in the movie, unfortunately Trueba’s far greater affection for Rochefort’s artist and his creative plight does make the film slightly uneven in its balance of character-driven storytelling.

And indeed, the film is at its best overall when it relishes in the artistic process from Cros questioning aloud how such wisdom was ever possible that Rembrandt could incorporate his thoughts into a single sketch to the way he diligently fights to convey an “idea” rather than make a perfect representation of whatever is in front of him.

Nominated for twenty-three awards around the globe, while Trueba’s decidedly different take on life during wartime is refreshingly unique, I only wish that more time could have been spent on the seemingly unassuming yet truly brave Merce, whom we discover did more than just escape captivity by dedicating her time to help others do the same.

Likewise, although we sense the finality of the tone in the last act, the rather abrupt implication and offscreen action made by one of the characters at the end of the movie is handled a bit too hurriedly to get us fully onboard with the decision emotionally – making the film just kind of hang there instead of wrap up with a stronger sense of conviction.

This being said, while the portrayal is rushed, the final sequence definitely pays off on the thesis of the movie as a unique study of just what it means to create art (in addition to two very different relationships with the medium itself) from the point of view of two very different characters.

Whereas for Rochefort’s Cros it surpasses all other interest in life and/or adds meaning to the savage actions of men around them, in the eyes of the model whose very body or life inspired his art, you wouldn’t have art without looking out for your fellow man (or woman).

Thus, even though the film is called The Artist and the Model, in some ways they are one and the same. Namely, Merce brings her views to life in multiple ways from helping soldiers, civilians and by posing for Cros, ultimately knowing that her legacy as an artist of life will live on in a number of ways –  in the lives of those who’ve been saved either directly be her or (via Cros's statue) indirectly through art. 

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