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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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution