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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Young and Promising is the next best new TV comedy about “struggling millennials”

It’s Norwegian, subtitled, gently funny and very honest.

You know things are bleak when every mainstream comedy derives its humour from just how fucked up it is to be young today. Girls, Broad City, Search Party, Insecure, Fleabag, Love, This Country, You’re The Worst... the list of on-screen women in their 20s “just doing their best to figure it all out” is endless.

Over on Channel 4 tonight, a new overgrown child of the genre debuts, albeit one with a slight difference. Young and Promising (or Unge Lovende) makes its way to mainstream UK TV from Norway’s NRK (the channel that brought us Skam, the best teen drama of the decade) as part of All 4’s Walter Presents programme, which offers a chance to experience shows from around the globe. It’s Norwegian, subtitled, gently funny and very honest.

Young and Promising is written by its lead actress, Siri Seljeseth, who plays Elise, an aspiring comedian based in LA who returns home to Oslo to renew her tourist visa. The show also follows her two best friends (played by Seljeseth’s real friends from the Nordic Institute of Stage and Studio): Nenne (Gine Cornelia Pedersen), a waitress and unpublished fiction writer, and Alex (Alexandra Gjerpen), who is at the crucial stages of auditions for the Norwegian National Academy of Theatre for the fourth year in a row. 

It’s Elise whom we see the most of in tonight’s opening double-bill, which follows her from LA to the US Embassy in Oslo as she tries to get back to California. In Norway, it watches her struggle to handle a relationship she had left hanging, with her ruggedly handsome best friend Anders, whom she slept with the night before she first left for LA. It’s her home life, however, that’s most intriguing: her domineering father has cheated on her nervous, psychoanalytic mother and is having a baby with another woman. Who? “I don’t think that is relevant in this situation,” he insists. “This won’t affect you in a greater extent.” 

Meanwhile, Nenne is rejecting male publishers who fetishise her work as a new cool feminist voice. She uses her waitressing job to her advantage, assisting a senior publisher suffering from alcohol-induced vomiting and diarrhea in order to call in a favour later. But it’s Alex who has the stand out plotline, with some of the most complex and moving scenes of the show. She is simultaneously the most ambitious and most disillusioned character, played at breaking point by Gjerpen. When, in a key audition, her male scene partner suddenly forces his hand between her thighs, she snaps, and spends the rest of the episode lurching between hot tears of guilt over losing the scene, and painful conversations with peers about “being in character”.

Young and Promising has drawn countless comparisons to Girls, as any new show about mid-20s creative women does, but it’s friendlier, less cinematic and more down to earth than much of that series. The laughs don’t hit as hard, but its lead characters are fundamentally much more likeable. If you’re a struggling millennial comedy addict, or searching for something to fill the Norwegian hole Skam left in your life, Young and Promising is for you.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.