Picture this: a quiet corner of France, near the Spanish border. The World War is drawing to a close; a war that has only touched lightly on these sun-dappled foothills of the Pyrenees. An artist of venerable years is sharing an al fresco peasant repast with his much, much younger model. She has just taken him to heaven, back in the cobwebby, dust-moted, ramshackle studio behind them. One suspects it has been many a year since he has physically experienced the body of a beautiful maiden. He knows it will be the last time she will grant him that pleasure too, for on the morrow she departs, with a reference letter from him to Matisse in Marseilles. Still he feels rejuvenated. For this man of sombre mood and few words, he is feeling understandably buoyant and loquacious.
‘You know,’ Marc Gros informs the girl, his singular lover, ‘there are only two proofs that god exists. One of them is woman. You see he created Eve – created her first solely to keep him company.’
‘And I suppose the other proof is man,’ the artist’s Eve speculated.
No, no, no! God would not be so idiotic to create a creature as stupid as man. No, Adam was the result of his union with Eve – this was the original sin,’ Gros pontificated as Merce took another bite of her apple.
‘If that is so, then what is the second proof that you speak of?’
The old sculptor took a small glass pitcher from his table, and poured a drop of oil onto his forefinger. He then pressed that finger to her lips. ‘That is,’ he responded.
To my mind, that is as fine a definition of the existence of an ultimate being as any. The other one I like is, ‘God is the sum total of all the good people who have ever existed,’ or words to that effect. In some of my scribblings I refer to god as ‘She in the Sky’. I enjoy that thought, in line with some of the ancients who subscribed to a Mother God. Methinks we need a softer, more compassionate god than the hard male one we have endured since the dawn of Western Civilisation. By clasping all of humanity to her breast the animosity between our tribes would diminish to zilch. She would hover protectively over us as climate change prepares to bring our planet to the brink. My daily life is largely godless, even if this heathen can reflect on the times he has been touched by the hand of god – but they are tales for another time! But as the camera intimately caresses the naked body of the artist’s model, in the same way as later in the movie she caressed his, my concurrence with the old man’s notion of a god is complete. Captured in the subdued, lustrous hues of black and white, ‘The Artist and the Model’ is part of the Spanish Film Festival currently touring the country. Even we here in Hobart received a few samples. Directed by Fernando Trueba, for a while I couldn’t see where this bucolic effort was heading – apart from it being a meditation on the beauty of youth and the ravages of age, as well as having something to say on the process by which flesh can made to be supple in marble.
Then the war does intervene, although never harshly. A German officer comes to visit, an old friend of Gros’ who, in a former life, was an exhibitor of his masterpieces. As they parted they embraced, for this too was a last time. Old age would catch up with one, the Russian front with the other. And the woodland sprite also has a secret or two!
Gros’ wife is played by Claudia Cardinale, who, as with Aida Folch’s portrayal of the muse does now, once made male hearts race with her own body. Hers is a lovely, restrained and touching performance as someone still totally enamoured of her man. She understands that ‘only doctors and artists are males permitted to see unclothed female bodies outside of wedlock.’ She recruited the seemingly homeless young girl for Gros accordingly.
Folch initially brings an earthiness to the part of the model, and she is rarely clothed throughout. Her ample hairiness differentiates those times from these, but she is coarse in manner as she is swarthy. Magically, as the film progresses and the artist warms to her, she becomes luminous, more womanly in the contemporary notion.
Jean Rochefort has been a bastion of the French film industry since the sixties. Now an octogenarian, he doesn’t need words to act. The single scene where his supine goddess reaches up to gently stoke his haggard old face is pure cinematic gold. From his eyes alone you know this is the final time such pleasure will be experienced. With his wife away and his model soon to be, now that the roads are safe, the viewer knows how the end will come. With age threatening to emasculate his skills, his preferred means of demise is inevitable.
‘The Artist and the Model’ is awash with charm and mellow quietude, but nonetheless still profound for that. It could easily lead those of us of a certain age to rue and regret now that the winter of our time is approaching. This viewer, though, will take Gros’ suggestion and happily ruminate on the pleasures of womanhood and olive oil instead.