Gonzalo Himiob, Venezuela
Director: Fernando Trueba.
First release: 2012.
Cast: Jean Rochefort as Marc Cros; Aída Folch as Mercè; Claudia Cardinale as Léa, Cros’ wife; Chua Lampreave as the elderly maid, María.
Written by: Fernando Trueba and Jean-Claude Carrière. Photography by Daniel Vilar. Art Direction: Pilar Revuelta
This French language film with English subtitles takes place in 1943 as World War II is ending and the context is the countryside home of a well-known sculptor and his wife. Some scenes take place in the nearby village where German soldiers and French locals cohabit in a mix of interactions, sharing space and food surrounded by daily town life, seemingly unscathed by the war. The rages of conflict and battle are at a distance and evidence of the occupation is only apparent through the presence of the uniformed Germans marching through the peaceful village.
In this environment, the elderly, retired sculptor Marc Cros lives with his wife Léa and an equally aged maidservant María in peaceful but empty circumstances. One day while on a shopping trip to the town marketplace, Léa and the servant discover a young Spanish girl who had been sleeping in a doorway and was bathing in the town fountain; she is dirty and ragged with scratches and bruises. Léa, with wide-eyed intelligence and sense of purpose, decides to engage her as the sculptor’s new model.
The couple offers money, food, housing in exchange for modelling. To her surprise, the Young woman finds that she must pose nude, but she agrees to the bargain and settles into a work routine with the artist. What is also exposed early on is that Cros has, in many ways, given up on his creative endeavours and perhaps on life itself; the dust-covered studio has been shut for years. His wife has brought in this young woman as means to enliven her husband and help him to find his connection to beauty and the artistic process.
Through the interaction between artist and model, life begins to flourish. The old man will recover his drive for love and the young girl will acquire knowledge; at the same time, the sculptor’s wife will find herself in the modewith memories of earlier times in their youth when she was his primary subject. Léa actually provides her husband with new life by bringing into the foreground a regenerating anima who inspires his work.
As the movie unfolds, the viewer begins to appreciate Mercè (mercy?) both as a kind of soul guide for Marc Cros’ renaissance and also for refugees escaping from Franco’s dictatorship traveling from Spain into France; she knows her way through the forests. Although young and, in many aspects, innocent and uncultivated, Mercè is capable of intuitively sensing what is needed in a variety of complex situations. On one hand, Mercè is the psychopomp for Marc Cros; on the other hand, the artist introduces the young woman into the mysteries, magic and beauty of art. In one of the most moving scenes he shows her a Rembrandt drawing and exhorts her to see, really see a ‘masterpiece of art’. The picture reveals a young child taking its first steps. Is he encouraging her to make the first small steps towards developing an aesthetic sensibility? As the film proceeds, viewers are pulled into the multifaceted motions and complexes that are constellated and eventually possess the artist and his model.
This is a rich and powerful film and there is a great deal that could be discussed. However, I will limit my reflections in this final section of the review and focus on three main issues through the lens of my own method for reading images or, put in another way, my method for exploring the language of images.
First, as with dream analysis, I ask who is the autor? Who creates the images in this particular film? I suggest that the generator of the images is Fenando Trueba (b.1955), a gifted Spanish director (Academy Award for Best Foreign Film Director in 1994 for Belle Epoque, Silver Shell for Best Director at the San Sebastian International Film Festival for this film, among many other nominations and awards). He created the film and dedicated it to his brother, a sculptor who died in a car accident. We might, therefore, imagine that the film was part of his grieving process and a way to recover and restructure memories of his brother. The act of producing a film about creating art means to restore life may have been his own attempt at healing.
Second, at the cultural level, the film unfolds during terrible times, when catastrophe and devastation are part of everyday life. Even though the village is a peaceful place, the presence of German soldiers is evident and ominous, and the plight of young Mercè -who is on her own without friends and family and who smuggles others from Spain into a relatively safe France justifies her need of employment and dependence on Marc and Léa Cros.
Tragedy in such times calls for compensation in the drive for hope, love and new growth.
Third, at the archetypal level, we witness the eternal process of the fundamental human need for relationship guided by Eros. The Artist and The Model is a life-giving film. It recreates a long tradition of stories involving artists, their models and love of the creative process that resonates with My Fair Lady, Pygmalion and many other tales, actual and mythical. Psychotherapy, like the transformative process between the artist and model in this film, has the potential for transformation guided by the constellation of Eros, the primal god of connection. Toward the end of the film, it becomes clear that there has been a deep recognition of one another as the artist strokes her side and she responds by exploring his face with her hands; both are gestures of love, curiosity and recognition, personal and simultaneously archetypal. Also, at the archetypal level, the inspiring anima is present and moves through the ageing Léa to Mercè and into the sculpture that is larger than life and seemingly represents the eternal beauty of the feminine.
Last but not least, is the presence of the old servant, a kind of humorous figure who moves the scenes along, as well as clarifies and acts as a guide for the process. She is a representation of Hermes in the guise of mediator or facilitator by not getting directly involved or participating in the conflict. We can observe that all of the characters, as with dream interpretation, are part of the drama and belong to the structure of the entire tale. And, central to the structure of Fernando Trueba’s film are the three aspects of the anima evident in the maiden, the mother/wife, and the crone; all three work together to enliven the artist and the creative process through love.
Finally, I offer the following four amplifications for reflection:
Marc Cros will, in an amazing dialogue, say that he can prove the existence of God by two singular facts: the body of a woman and olive oil. He is speaking of the anima as guide for the development of individuation through beauty and the senses. He also offers his own intriguing creation story to the young Eve who sits before him eating an apple.
Olive oil is the gift of Athena to Athens and is a path, historically, for transformation of nomadic societies into sedentary cultures. Is Cros suggesting to the nomadic Mercè that putting down roots may be ultimately of value for her?
The death of Cros is not a tragedy, as it is the final event of a life whose processes are complete. Cros has achieved his goals and his death is the culmination of life. Cros dies in a magical and amazing landscape, just as Mercè goes on the road to beginning her own independent adventures. The black and white format takes viewers back to earlier days of this genre, maybe to recall a sense of originality and authenticity; this choice is effective in conveying a deep sense of nostalgia and the sense that death and creativity are inevitable partners.