'The Artist and the Model' review: Jean Rochefort plays nude muse in familiar story

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It sometimes seems there is but one story the movies can tell about artists. The great painter/sculptor/musician/actor finds his "muse," and completes some great work. 

We saw it most recently in the French movie about the last months of the painter August Renoir, "Renoir," and it's on display again in the duller, black and white copy of that, "The Artist and the Model."

This French film from the director of the Spanish "Belle Epoch" is a World War II tale of a famed sculptor who finds one last model worthy of his efforts, one last muse to bring to fill his remaining days, living in the south of Occupied France.

"I have a sculpture to complete, with or without the war."

French actor Jean Rochefort ("Ridicule," "Lost in La Mancha") is Marc Cros, and Aida Folch is the naive Catalan girl Merce who settles into work posing nude for the master.

Claudia Cardinale plays Cros' wife, formerly his model. Martin Gamet is a young Resistance fighter injured and forced to recuperate in their company, a temptation to Merce. And Gotz Otto is the German officer who was a art historian in civilian life, a great admirer of Cros and his biographer, the sort of chap who drops by with a few soldiers, from time to time, to see his idol.

That short description is so ripe with melodrama that you'd expect a more arresting and emotional if not more predictable movie from it. But Fernando Trueba, like many a film artist before him, loses himself in the details of the creative process. 

Cros sketches, adjusts Merce's poses, and sketches some more. See Merce frolic in the pond, scratch herself up in the brambles and get lectured about it. See her tempt the village boys, who all want to grow up to be artists "so we can look at naked women all day."

A lovely moment -- Cros shows Merce a copy of a Rembrandt sketch, breaking down the elegant poses and lines. He takes enough of an interest in her to want her to "look at things with attention."

Cros works with clay and picks out the stone which will be chiseled into the nude in repose.

"Looks perfect as it is," he says, sizing it up. "It's a pity to spoil it."

A funny moment -- Cros storms out on a work session so that Merce cannot see that he's let himself become aroused in her presence. 

But dawdling along as it does, "The Artist and the Model" merely calls attention to all the films that have covered the same ground, most of them just as slow and serene, most of them drawn to exactly the same details about the process of creation ("La belle noiseuse" may be the most carefully observed, and the most tedious).

Shooting this in black and white draws attention to shapes, shades and forms, just as "Renoir" used the same color palette as the famous painter's work in its production design. 

But the performances and situations seem drained of color, too. There's little spark to any of them, just lingering languorous shots of nudity, all tastefully done, of course. 

And a black and white film with white subtitles? That's a rookie mistake. 

If you're going to go to the trouble of bringing the war into a story, you need to do more with it. 

And if you're setting your story in the South of France in the summer of '44, black and white probably isn't the most aesthetically pleasing choice. Tales from the world of art need to be more colorful than this. 

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THE ARTIST AND THE MODEL
(Grade C)
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of graphic nudity
Cast: Jean Rochefort, Aida Folch, Claudia Cardinale, Martin Gamet, Gotz Otto 
Credits: Directed by Fernando Trueba, written by Trueba and Jean-Claude Carriere.  A  Cohen Media Group release
Running time: 1:45
Photo/Video credit: Cohen Media Group