Set in the Pyrenees in occupied France during 1943, The Artist and the Model depicts a time where men dressed elegantly, creative types didn’t rely on technology to produce art and models had bodies that embraced their womanliness, body hair and all. So when model Merce, (Aida Folch) reveals the wisps of her armpit, it’s almost as shocking as the complete nudity she displays for much of the movie.
After escaping from a concentration camp Merce is picked up off the streets by Lea (Claudia Cardinale) and delivered to her aging artist husband Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort was made for the role) to inspire him enough to start sculpting again. Taking on a motherly role, Lea persuades the young fidgety girl to model for her husband in exchange for food, board and clothes; albeit briefly worn. As if that wasn’t French enough, Lea one day asks her husband, “Does she have enough clothes?” “How would I know, I only see her naked,” he chorts.
A relationship blooms between the artist and the model, and despite the gruffness he often displays towards Merce, there is much tenderness between them which is further demonstrated when Marc shows her a Rembrandt sketch of a family scene where a young boy is taking his first steps; much like Merc’s foray into modelling, and in fact life itself.
The extent of Marc’s infatuation becomes apparent when he discovers a handsome soldier in Merce’s bed. He becomes so frustrated and punishes her with the story of how God caught Adam and Eve in the act; Merce responds by devouring an apple. There are more elements of humour when the local children are caught spying on the naked women who lives in the studio and Lea’s Spanish housekeeper (Chus Lampreave) amuses with her probing questions to Lea about her life as a former model for Marc.
Captivating from start to finish, especially as viewers wonder how Merce’s wily beauty will ever be captured in clay, but all is revealed when the masterpiece is finally complete. Filmed in black and white, further contrasts are at play with the ugliness of war in the background and the astounding beauty of love as the starring role.
So exquisitely shot and mesmerising is Merce’s chaotic beauty, you hardly notice the sub-titles.
The Artist and the Model plays again on Sunday 23 June at 4.30pm at Cinema Paradiso.
Here’s a sneaky peek The Artist and the Model