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.