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

The Writers Museum
Show Hide image

Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear