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

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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