Oscar winning director Fernando Trueba’s latest film, The Artist and The Model, examines the relationship between artist Marc Cros and his model, Mercè, against the backdrop of World War II.
The dynamic between an artist and his or her model is integral to the history of Western art. From Vermeer to Picasso, Leonardo to Freud, the relationship, imagined and real, fascinates art lovers across the spectrum for its two-way collaboration, often between very different protagonists. Spanish director Fernando Trueba’s The Artist and the Model penetrates to the very core of this relationship. The film explores the everyday activities of life in the studio; the awkwardness, disagreements, frustration, boredom and path to understanding that these pairs must traverse to achieve their artistic goals.
A creative chameleon, Trueba is a critic, publisher, Grammy award winning music producer, screenwriter and Oscar winning director (for Belle Époque in 1992). His previous release, Chico & Rita (2010), was illustrated by the spectacular Spanish artist Javier Mariscal and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2012 Academy Awards. All elements of the art-making process fascinate him, and this consideration on the workings of an artist’s studio and his relationship with his model has been a long time coming. From an early age he recalls his mother showing him photographs of artists and their ateliers, and how he would imagine what it was like “to enter into Picasso’s atelier (which) I could achieve through this photograph as a boy.” He was also heavily influenced by “French movies of the 1930s that had an almost documentary aspect,” and the manner in which they contained no artifice or preoccupation with aesthetics. “They were not very sophisticated but they were much more beautiful than studio movies that were done with a lot of money and very sophisticated equipment. They were not aesthetic movies but they were very direct. That was the approach that I wanted to have in the film.” This real (if imagined) observation and true-to-life study of the artist’s studio was of utmost importance to Trueba: “I didn’t want to do a very visual movie. I wanted it to be beautiful, obviously, but I wanted it to be true more than anything else.” The life of Picasso, and his later work in particular, fascinates him: “Picasso, more than any other artist, did hundreds of canvases and sculptures of his subject … but it’s also about old age, life and death, and in a way it’s a case of this old artist grabbing life.”
Trueba co-wrote the script with acclaimed screenwriter and actor Jean-Claude Carrière but had been pondering its concept in his own mind since 1997. Of the slow burn into fruition, Trueba says: “It’s a method that I use a lot; not to start working when you have an idea but to live with the idea for some time, spend time thinking, dreaming about it, and then one day you decide that you are ready to work and can start writing the screenplay.” This growing and living with the idea is something that we see undertaken within the film itself, with the artist spending days in the presence of his naked model, experimenting with charcoals, sketches and segmented body parts in clay before he completes the final monumental sculpture of the nude.
For several reasons, Carrière was an essential addition to the film for Trueba: “He’s a classic; I have admired his work for many years.” Furthermore, “he’s French; he’s from the region in the south of France (where the film takes place), and then he’s the same age as the character, so he was the ideal man to work with on a project such as this.” Trueba’s admiration for his fellow screenwriter is obvious: “He is also just a great writer of screenplays, books and plays – for me there was something special about working with him.” Similarly Carrière was impressed with Trueba’s own concept for the story, and the initial idea remains close to the final product. He notes: “I think the movie is very close to that initial dream that I had. It’s obvious that all of the actors and collaborators bring things to the movie but I feel it’s very close to the film that I wanted to make.” However, Trueba does emphasise (as the artist of the title might), “an idea and a final film are not the same material, but it’s what I wanted to do.”
The film centres around Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort), a famous artist in occupied France who has lost motivation and inspiration to continue creating his work. An elderly man, Cros, contemporary of Picasso and Matisse, has lived through two world wars and lost all faith in humanity. He states: “Men are savages,” holes himself up in his remote cottage in the hills and removes himself equally from the German Occupation and the Resistance, treating both with indifference. Trueba describes these aspects of Cros as “like the living dead; to show someone who has literally lost all hope and interest in life.” He awaits death and, although the war and its atrocities are unseen in this remote outpost of the French countryside, World War II lingers in the background and provides an essential context for Cros’ nihilism: “He says after the First World War that they thought it would never repeat, and now they are in the middle of that crazy war again. No other generation has experienced these monstrosities. That was the perfect country and time period for me.”
Cros’ wife, ever-understanding and patiently attempting to coax him back to work, takes in a young Spanish refugee, Mercè (Aida Folch), providing food and shelter in return for her services as a model to her husband. She cleverly anticipates exactly what her husband is looking for and sees it in Mercè’s temperament and figure so that, while Cros is initially gruff and reluctant, he gradually warms to his new model and the concept of working again, creating one final, spectacular sculpture before the old age that Trueba continually hints at ends his life. It’s a focus on life, death and art, and how two completely disparate characters can come together.
The scenes between the artist and the model are extended, quietly contemplative and intensely pared down so that the simplicity of the interactions (or lack thereof) between the two protagonists lies at the heart of its successful delivery. He comments: “We wanted to keep it really simple, really essential. For me, it’s just a man whose life is at its end; he knows that, he’s completely lost all hope and faith in humanity. He doesn’t expect anything from life. He’s really into what we would call depression and he’s just waiting for the end. So the movie is about how life again enters his life.” This simplicity feeds back into Trueba’s vision of art-making today as a whole, and his contempt for the “intellectual”, “conceptual” art of today’s fashion is clear: “I really don’t believe in conceptual art; I think an artist is also an artisan always.” Because of this personal view, he consistently emphasises the physical act rather than the intellectual one: “Usually when people make movies about artists there is a lot of ‘blah, blah, blah’ – I wanted to avoid that and also approach the handmade, materialistic aspect of art.”
Furthermore, Trueba argues: “I don’t like the term creative process because I wanted to keep it really pared down. This is a man who works with his hands, who has to get dirty with clay. I wanted to keep that material, that simple act, not one thinking about creation, about his oeuvre or his work.” This focus on the artisan reverts back to the director’s lifelong fascination with the working life of the artist and the everyday realities of the studio. He says: “I think the simplicity of art is one of the most important aspects of the film.” As an admirer of the craft artisan, Trueba is clear about how he sees art and beauty: “It is not an intellectual activity; it is something more intuitive, something you have to make with more passion, with your heart, stomach and hands, not with the brain, not with rationalist ideas. Most of modern art today is competitive, rational, an idea, but in the film it is more material.”
These elements are clear in those who have inspired Trueba and who he directly references in the film – Picasso and Rembrandt. The painterly qualities, fervent creativity and lifelong collaborations of Picasso’s models and the observation, contemplation and humanity of Rembrandt as one of the greatest portraitists of all time come to the fore in the interactions between Cros and Mercè. In one scene where Cros encourages his lighthearted, youthful model to take more time and contemplate the images around her, they discuss the simple lines and hidden stories of Rembrandt’s A Child Learning to Walk. It’s an essential element for Trueba “because it’s where she really gets involved in the artist’s world for the first time,” but also because it “establishes some relationship with the audience; the audience is watching this drawing through another’s eyes.” Trueba took inspiration from another contemporary artist who has achieved great success experimenting with both physical and digital materials, and exploring the physical qualities of art over and above its concepts, David Hockney, and an interview that the director read in which Hockney discusses this Rembrandt piece: “I was so moved by it; it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read about a painting, and when I came back to Paris, I brought this magazine and I showed it to Jean-Claude and he had the exact same reaction. So from Hockney’s thoughts we built the same thing in the movie,” and Trueba’s admiration for artists as artisans extends to those working in the present day.
The Rembrandt becomes a turning point of the film because these two protagonists who “are so far from one another they are like two different animal species” start to consider each other differently. Whereas at first “they look at each other with a distant look,” Trueba starts to establish “a common language to approach some type of relationship, then some kind of complicity, then to establish some sort of friendship and some continuity somehow between someone who’s old, someone who’s young, someone who’s a woman, someone who’s a man, someone who’s from one country, the other from a different one. At the end, what is important about the relationship is the transmission of things; what you can give to someone and what they give to you. This transition is what the movie is about.”
Cros and Mercè start the film poles apart: Mercè is active in the Resistance, escaping one of Franco’s confinement camps and helping refugees through the European countryside and across borders, while Cros buries his head in the sand and ignores the Nazi loyalties of his long-term biographer. Furthermore, Cros begins the film as the epitome of the disgruntled creative genius, cynical to the world, and treating Mercè as a mere prop at his disposal. But Trueba argues that, while “he became little by little more human, more open, more alive. I don’t think at the beginning he’s cynical; it’s more of a case of him being simply not that interested.” But, as he teaches Mercè about art, she becomes a revelation for him: “When you’re an artist, you don’t have an exact objective, it flows. You have more intuition of what you want and an exact idea of what you want. It’s like a dream and you have to materialise it. He’s old and he didn’t expect to work again but he decides to give it a try once more – one last time.”
Trueba summarises the film as “the life of this man who is ending, and the life of the woman who is beginning, one dissolves into another and they pass into each other.” We see the stark effects that each protagonist has on the other, creatively, emotionally and politically. While Trueba implies that the film shows a metaphorical passing of the baton between Cros and Mercè, the effect and reinvigoration of Cros as a result of his meeting Mercè is clear to see. The model gives a renewed vigour to the artist with which he can accept his next stage. With this, Trueba provides a euphemism for facing death with satisfaction and contentment, and opens up a quiet exploration of themes of life and death that are as old as art itself.
The Artist and the Model is released in UK cinemas on 13 September. More details at www.axiomfilms.co.uk.