I saw this film in the last weekend before the Xmas holiday, a confirmation of the advice I received – wait till the end of December to make your list of the year’s favourites. There are a number of reasons for seeing and enjoying this film. One is the fine script by Jean-Claude Carrière, arguably the finest writer in European films for several decades. Another is the direction by Fernando Trueba who also collaborated on the script. Thirdly would be the excellent black and white anamorphic cinematography by Daniel Vilar. And finally the sensitively attuned set of performances by the cast. What a pleasure to see both Jean Rochefort (Marc Cros) and Claudia Cardinale (Lèa) together again after long and distinguished careers.
The film charts the changing relationship between the elderly sculptor (Cros) and a young, beautiful model, Mercè (Aida Folch). The story is centrally about art and the search for beauty. But it is also about sexuality, obsession, gender relations and the relations between generations. These are abiding concerns of Jean-Claude Carrière. But his writing also nearly brings in social, cultural and political dimensions. So the action is set in Perpignan in the later stages of World War II. Mercè is a refugee from Spain, at one time imprisoned by the Franco fascist regime. In the course of the film we also meet Werner (Götz Otto) a serving Wehrmacht officer but also an academic involved in art history and an admirer of Cros’ work. Then there is Pierre (Martin Gamet) involved in the Spanish underground. We also get beautifully realised cameo of life in Perpignan and delightfully brief glimpses of local children and their catholic pastor. There is a particular critical tendency that tends to elevate ‘universal stories’ as the elixir of cinema. For me great movies are grounded in time, place and character. This is what Carrière absolutely does.
Trueba’s direction serves this presentation well. The mise en scène is both graceful and complementary. The interiors of the artist’s studio comment subtly on the creative and emotional process. There are some fine tracking shots and a series of dissolves that are the best I have seen for a long time. The soundtrack is predominately natural sound. The only two pieces of composed music are by Duke Ellington and Gustav Mahler, which will give you a sense of the trajectory of the story. Carrière and Trueba also draw fine distinctions between the sequences where Mercè is a model and an object of gaze and those where the artist and the model interact. There is a lovely sequence with Cros showing Mercè a drawing by Rembrandt.
Some of the art references (e.g. Matisse and Cézanne) seem a little obvious. And the closing shot of the penultimate sequence seems rather conventional. But the film holds one’s attention whilst suggesting a whole range of thoughts and emotions.
The film has a mixture of French and Spanish with English subtitles.