By Danny Peary
Last month, I posted an interview with the lovely Spanish actress Aida Folch and stated that The Artist and the Model, her new film for director Fernando Trueba, would be playing in Sag Harbor before the summer ended. Sure enough, it slipped into town last week, the final week of summer, and–I want to alert you–it will be playing a second week at the Sag Harbor Cinema, the first week of Fall, beginning Friday the 20th at 5 pm. Be sure to see it. Trueba’s elegant, elegiac film is set in southern France during the Occupation. The great French actor Jean Rochefort plays Marc Cross, a famous, elderly, bored sculptor who pays little attention to the war–or anything else. His wife and one-time model Léa (Claudia Cardinale) tries to inspire him to create one more masterpiece by bringing him a young Spanish political refugee to be his model. Mercè (Folch) agrees to pose nude for hours each day in exchange for shelter in his studio. At first there is little connection between the artist and the model, but in time he sees and is inspired by her beauty (and her intelligence as well) and is able to transfer it to his art. And we come to understand the unique relationship between artists and models and directors and leading ladies. The following is my Q&A with the Spanish director/writer/producer Trueba, whose 1992 film Belle Epoque, starring a young Penelope Cruz, won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Danny Peary: You state in the production notes that The Artist and the Model goes beyond being a mere self-portrait. You brought it one of the greatest screenwriters in the world to be a collaborator. Jean-Claude Carrière. Because it so personal, were you able to collaborate with him easily?
Fernando Trueba: Yes, and it was a beautiful collaboration. I told him that I’d like to work with him. He loved the story and asked me, “Can you wait one month and a half? I must finish a book that I have to give to my editor.” I said, “If you want to work with me, a month and a half is nothing.” I went to live in Paris during the writing, so every day I came to his home, we started to talk about the story and characters. It was easy to work with Jean-Claude. What was delicate for me was at the very beginning to transmit to him the flavor of the movie, the simplicity that I was looking for. I said, “We shouldn’t make this movie poetic or dramatic. We should go for something more simple and sensual and pretty. If there is a poetry, it should come from that, not because we are playing the poets.”
DP: The two of you agreed on that?
FT: Yeah, we agreed. We discussed these things before, and, for me, it was very important that we did. That’s one thing I learned to do from working four times with Rafael Azcona, the greatest Spanish writer. With him, I always spend three months talking about the movie before writing one word on paper. He always wants to know exactly which movie we want to make before writing. That’s a very important thing.
DP: In their films together, Buñuel and Carrière would take the real and make it unreal, and the unreal is actually realer than the real. Like in Belle de Jour or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I don’t see a connection to Bunuel, but your artist is taking what we see as real–the model–and making it unreal–the sculpture–and it’s likely that in his eyes the unreal is more real. And you, like all filmmakers, shoot real actors but put something unreal on the screen.
FT: I understand, but as much as I love Bunuel and his films, I can’t really see any relationship between my movie and Buñuel’s.
DP; What about Jacques Rivette’s 1991 film, La Belle Noiseuse? Are you a fan of that?
FT: I must confess not. My problem with that film is that it is very intellectual but it’s very artificial in some ways. I don’t want to criticize but I will tell you the first time I met Jean Rochefort after he read the script. I went to his home, and he asked me, “Do you know La Belle Noiseuse?” I said, “Yes, yes. I saw it.” “Did you like it?” I had to take a couple of seconds, and I said, “No, and that is not like my movie.” He stood up, came to me, and embraced me. That was good start for us! So we shared something there.
DP: Well, I like both films.
FT: Yes, but they’re quite completely different.
DP: La Belle Noiseuse is much longer so it has time to deal more with the artistic process, but there’s a moment in both movies–and in yours it’s maybe when the artist and model discuss the Rembrandt picture–when all of the sudden there’s an acceptance of the model on the artists’ part and they become collaborators–and the model becomes an artist herself.
FT: And the audience can look through her eyes at that moment and identify very much with her.
DP: Is the art more beautiful than the model? To an artist, is Aida Folch more beautiful on the screen than in real life, and is her character Mercè less beautiful than the sculpture?
FT: I think we make movies, write books, paint, and sculpt, to create life and understand life. That’s why we work and that’s what this movie’s about. It’s about the work that we relate to life. Sometimes people say art is more important and more beautiful than life, but I believe life and art are the same thing. And they are complementary. Art is another way of breathing. It’s another way of looking at reality. Fernando Pessoa, a poet that I love, once said that humans need fiction to make reality real. Reality lacks so much form, lacks so much anything, so we need to do these things. Some people think that art is like a luxury product that has nothing to do with real life, but that’s not my approach. I think art is as necessary as life.
DP: Must the artist love his model to see her beauty, or does the beauty result from the love?
FT: I think he must love her. There is a moment when the artist says to the model in the movie, “What did you think, that I was making your portrait? I was not doing that!” He’s saying, don’t think you are the queen of France. But at the same time, there is love in his way of looking at reality and nature. You must love your subject to make it possible.
DP: There’s an erotic scene in your movie when the nude model takes a swim and I believe it’s meant to recall Hedy Lamarr’s notorious nude swim in Ecstasy. But did you want the film to be erotic?
FT: Yeah, that was like Ecstasy. I was looking for beauty in the movie, that’s obvious, but I never talked about this movie as being erotic.
DP: So if I were to say that it’s an erotic movie, you wouldn’t want that response?
FT: Well, a movie is a different movie in the minds of every spectator, like a novel is a different novel for every reader. Usually movies that have a lot of naked scenes are like commercials. I hate that. My challenge was to establish a natural relationship with the body, with what a sculptor or a painter does. So I didn’t want this movie to be erotic. I wanted it to be true, to be natural, and, as I said, establish a natural relationship with the body. At the same time I wanted it to be beautiful. So I was very careful in every single frame and every single shot of the movie, to find the right angle, and the right light. That was very difficult with this work, to keep the balance over time.
DP: Does anyone on the outside] ever really understand the relationships between an artist and a model and a filmmaker and his lead actress?
FT: I think so, and I hope many of the people who see the movie do. For people who are very foreign to that ambience of that relationship, this movie puts you so close that you feel the intimacy of the situation, the intimacy inside the artist’s atelier, and the work relationship between the artist and the model. I think it will help many people figure out what it’s about.
DP: Aida told me that your film helped her understand a lot more than she did before about the model and the artist’s relationship.
FT: Before the movie, she had to work as a model for the eight artists who were creating all the pieces of art that are in the movie. I think she learned a lot posing for them.
DP: Aida, who you’ve been working with since she was a very young girl, also told me that years before there was a script you called her and asked if she could speak French.
FT: The script was not written yet, but I wanted to know before writing it if she spoke French. She said no, but called me six months later and explained that after talking to me she went to live in France and learned how to speak French. I said, really!
DP: Considering that there wasn’t a script yet, that was risky!
FT: That was risky and generous.
DP: So after she learned French, you began writing it for her?
FT: Yeah. We were writing the scene where Mercè is asked where is she from, and she says a village in Spain. So I was always thinking about her for the film.
DP: You cast Jean Rochefort and Claudia Cardinale in the other two leads, as the artist and his wife, who was once his model. They were both stars along with Jean-Paul Belmondo of Cartouche, one of my favorite films as a teenager.
FT: That was exactly 50 years before our shooting. Half a century! And they hadn’t worked together since Cartouche! I think she was with Belmondo, some time many years ago. Jean and Belmondo still call each other almost every day. A beautiful thing about Jean is that friendship is his religion, and that his great friends today are his friends from acting school, Conservatoire de Paris. He, Jean-Pierre Marielle, and Belmondo talk all the time.
DP: You and Aida are both from Spain, but you have Jean Rochefort, who’s French, playing the artist, and his wife is played by Claudia Cardinale, who’s Italian although she’s actually from Tunisia and her first language was French. And there’s a German soldier, Werner, played by Götz Otto. And Mahler, an Austrian, is on the soundtrack. Were you thinking that you wanted all these different nationalities represented?
FT: I like in movies when you have an Italian actor playing an Italian character, and a Spanish actor playing a Spanish character, and a German actor playing a German character. The movie’s not a comedy or a fantasy, so I wanted real things.
DP: I think you could have easily set your film in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Did you have to set it in France during WWII?
FT: From the beginning, I wanted it to be about a French artist from that generation who lived through the two world wars. Like Picasso. That was important. The first World War began thirty years before, and those who were fifty then are now seeing another world war. I felt for people of that generation. What must they have thought of the human race?
DP: It’s stated in the film: Human beings are “savages.”
FT: It was very important for me that this old man, this old artist, has really lost all faith in human beings, and he thinks that maybe the best thing for the world is to be destroyed and for the human race to disappear.
DP: One of the interesting aspects of the film is that Marc doesn’t have any need to stick around to celebrate th end of the war and the victory. He helps those in trouble, but it doesn’t matter to him.
FT: Yeah, he doesn’t believe it is the end of war.
DP: Aida told me that the end of the film surprised her, as did other things in the film, and that you had to answer many of her questions. Did you like her asking you so many questions?
FT (laughing): No! No, but I love her so I answered them. She’d say, “I’m the MTV generation,” and I would tell her, “You young people think that the rhythm should be faster, but rhythm has nothing to do with being slow or fast. If rhythm is only fast cutting then you’ll be bored after ten minutes. The sense of time, the tempo, is another thing. You know the film critic Manny Farber? I have a painting of his at home called “Faster Slow.” It’s my sense of cinema, too. I want people to stop and look and learn, because reading an image and knowing what I’m seeing is very important to me when I’m watching a movie. And listening, too, and distinguishing between artificial noise and real sound.
DP: A scene many people might find controversial is having the artist and the German solider, Werner, whose field his art, have a friendly visit and hug each other although it’s during the Occupation.
FT: That’s a real thing. That happened a lot in the First and in the Second World Wars. People at war were friends. The war divided you, no? I was thinking, these are two characters who were fine before the war. [Until his death in 1937] Count Kessler was a protector of art and an art collector, and he was a very good friend of many, many French artists. He was German.
DP: So you wanted to bring in a political element, also.
FT: It’s not a Manichaean movie. The world of art invented globalization centuries before the Internet. There were lots and lots of friendships between artists from countries at war.
Art doesn’t have anything to do with wars and flags!