The Artist and the Model: War as seen from an artist's studio

Ryan Gilbey reviews The Artist and the Model - the story of a reclusive sculptor in occupied France, whose artistic spirit returns when his wife spots a young homeless woman, loitering in the town square.

The 83-year-old Jean Rochefort is an actor of great range. He can be vinegary and regal, dapper and musketeer-like, snivelling and Steptoe-esque. His default appearance is that of a disappointed crow. He has had a distinguished career in European cinema: he’d worked with Luis Buñuel, Claude Chabrol and Bertrand Tavernier by the time he was 50. But it was playing the lead in a wistful 1990 middlebrow hit, Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser’s Husband, which turned him into a sort of art-house mascot. Decades later, in The Artist and the Model, he looks almost as spry as he was when he danced in the salon in Leconte’s film. He gives a wry, watchful performance as Marc, a sculptor in wartime France with sad, hopeful eyes and a silver broom-bristle moustache.
 
Now in his eighties, Marc hasn’t worked in years, but the arrival of a young homeless woman in his small town in occupied France, near the border with Spain, provides him with a candidate for a new muse. It is his wife, Léa (Claudia Cardinale), who first spots Mercè (Aida Folch) scratching around the town square. She’s on the run. Léa offers her food and board. The accommodation comes with strings: Mercè will have to stay in Marc’s stone shack in the hills, where woodland shadows fall across the walls as owls hoot portentously.
 
Mercè is warned not to interfere with so much as a speck of dust. (“If you touch a thing, he’ll fly into a rage! He lives on disorder!”) You sense she is merely a piece of red meat being left in the lion’s den. The promise of horror is increased by the way the camera usually shows the sculptures as a series of dismembered parts – an arm here, a head there. Would you be surprised to learn that while Marc is indeed gruff and suspicious at the outset, he and his new model enjoy a rapprochement? He bestows on her the benefit of his experience, while she encourages him to re-engage with a world from which he has recoiled after the shock of living through two wars.
 
Rochefort the actor may be a fine-haired brush but the material he has to work with here is pure Dulux. That is not to suggest that this film lacks entertainment value – merely that its insights are splashed on largely without finesse, its lessons plainly soothing. (It is shot, for no apparent reason, in a lukewarm monochrome.) This is disappointing, given that the screenplay was co-written by Jean- Claude Carrière, best known for his collaborations with Buñuel, and by the film’s director, Fernando Trueba, who co-directed the seductive animation Chico and Rita.
 
The idea of addressing wartime themes from an artist’s secluded studio, through which a German captain or a few Resistance fighters stray occasionally, is typical of Carrière. Examining the events of May 1968 in Milou in May, he restricted the action to the countryside, far from Paris. Stirred by the countercultural revolution, he focused in Taking Off on the parents rather than the rebellious hippies. The Artist and the Model does have a problem of emphasis but this has nothing to do with the war. It’s that the most interesting story – of Léa, a former model, now happy to pick her replacement to inspire her husband – lies off to one side, slightly overlooked, much like Léa herself.
 
There was a similar dynamic at play in Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991), another film about an ageing artist and a young model. But, at four hours in length, its scale allowed for a depth of thought and technique which Trueba’s picture cannot attain.
 
What The Artist and the Model does boast are generous performances and the odd flash of inspiration. A camera move that conceals Mercè’s first striptease is wittily choreographed. A sequence in which Marc discusses a Rembrandt drawing has passion and patience. Then there is Folch’s mouth, which is ever so slightly oversized. When she smiles, she looks giddy and a little out of control, like a child who has found herself at the wheel of a speeding Buick and is determined to enjoy the ride.
Jean Rochefort as Marc the reclusive sculptor, entering his stone shack studio.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Getty
Show Hide image

The Pier Falls is a skilful short story collection – and the glummest book I've read in years

There's no doubting Mark Haddon's talent, but if his stories are sympathetic, there's not much pity in them.

The unremitting bleakness of Mark Haddon’s first book of short stories seems to have stumped even his publishers, who have decided, in the blurb, to make the rather shell-shocked protestation that “his imagination is even darker than we had thought”. Certainly, anyone who came to Haddon’s work through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation will get a shock from this merciless collection, which opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration.

Sunk in its amplifying gloom, I found myself thinking of a passage in Haddon’s last (also fairly grim) novel, The Red House, in which an eight-year-old passes the time on a disastrous family holiday by planning his own work of literature. “It would be called A Hundred Horrible Ways to Die,” he muses, “and it would include torture and killing but not cancer.”

There is a good deal of sympathy in these economical pieces, but not much pity. The title story, first published in this paper, sets the tone. It is told in the present tense, and describes the collapse of a pier at a fictitious British seaside resort in 1970, balancing the unfolding horror of its events with a coolly detached, observational prose that creates a mood of eerie calm. “If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams,” Haddon writes, “you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea.” Later stories describe lives at various extremities of pain or grief, and with similar austerity. “Bunny” is about a 30-stone man feeding himself to death, “Breathe” about a woman tending her demented mother, “The Weir” about a divorcé who saves a mentally ill young woman from drowning. All of them share a distantly compassionate, vaguely medical tone, as though the author is relating news you may not wish to hear: it’s perhaps no surprise that doctors pop up with such frequency in Haddon’s work.

Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos, picking up shortly after Theseus’s ship sails off into the distance. In Haddon’s version, where none of the characters is named, the Minotaur is a deformed teenager, the king a brutal murderer and Ariadne a helpless teenager incapable of surviving in the wild. In the myth, she is discovered on Naxos by Dionysus, who marries her: here, the god of wine and ecstasy is a towering monster, covered in excrement, who rapes the helpless girl and then lets his Bacchantes rip her to pieces. It is told unflinchingly, though I could never quite work out whether Haddon’s flustered prose (“He is the only man she’s ever loved, and he has dumped her like ballast . . . She is off the heart’s map and her compass is spinning”) was in imitation of a lovestruck girl’s thoughts, or a rare crack in his usually undemonstrative and practical style.

“Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, too, Haddon remains silent about the inspiration, though an epigraph from Gawain lurks in forbidding Middle English at the beginning of the book. It opens on Christmas Eve at the Northamptonshire home of a retired neurosurgeon, where a session of posh family bickering is interrupted by the apparition of a gigantic stranger who demands to be blasted in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. The subsequent humbling of its central character, who is no longer “gode Gawan” but Gavin, a blusteringly awful TV presenter, is a tale of slow decline, homelessness and eventual redemption that loses none of its weird and ghostly sheen from being dragged into a later age.

Other stories play quietly with the reader’s assumptions about their elected genres. “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” uses a setting out of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs to tell its own, strangely truncated tale of loss and abandonment, as explorers in the jungle find cryptic warnings scrawled by a bottomless cave near the corpses of their predecessors. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf”, a colonist on a remote planet contends with a string of grisly hazards – botched appendectomies, suicide by her colleagues, the abandonment of relief efforts, an unexpected pregnancy – before being rescued. As she returns with her child to a spookily idyllic Earth, however, the suspicion grows that things are not quite as comforting as we would like to believe: “There is,” Haddon writes, “something wrong with all this but she cannot put her finger on what it might be.”

That sentence might apply equally well to every story in this impressive but forbiddingly lightless collection. There’s no doubt about Haddon’s skill, but I haven’t read a glummer book in years. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster