In the post-censorship era in America, nudity in filmed entertainment or on stage is a tough thing to control. By this I mean the naked body, especially in non-sexual situations, can become more of a distraction than a dramatic tool.
As a very young actress, Melanie Griffith starred in an Israeli film, ‘Ha-gan” (1977), in which she played a mute tourist in that country who after a sexual assault wanders dazed and confused into a garden tended by an old man. She is entirely naked and remains so through most of the movie.
The Israeli director clearly intended his film as a parable of the Garden of Eden, driving home this point in case it’s missed through Griffith’s character penchant for apples. But a viewer couldn’t help being terribly distracted by the fact that he was staring at a buck-naked, very young girl for much of the running time.
Similarly, as a theater arts student I recall seeing Bruce Jay Friedman’s off-Broadway play “Steambath” in a long since defunct Century City playhouse. Friedman’s play depicted the afterlife as a steam bath, in which recently deceased souls (many not realizing their situation) continue with the petty obsession that preoccupied them in life.
Concentrating on the playwright’s metaphor, again, was difficult opening night since the director of the Los Angeles production chose to let many of his actresses especially one who was very well endowed wear nothing other than a slippery towel. A return visit to the production some time later showed the director had learned from his mistake: Everyone now wore towels that covered most of their flesh.
Cut to many years later when I saw Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning Broadway production of “Take Me Out,” about a star baseball player coming out as gay. The entire play took place in the team’s locker room and the all-male cast was often naked.
Greenberg’s play dealt with homophobia, racism and masculinity in sports but anyone sitting close to the stage couldn’t help wondering what casting was like. Were actors auditioned for their acting talents or physical attributes?
From those front row seats it certainly appeared as if both factors were considered. In any event, the playwright’s themes took a decided back seat. Indeed most press coverage at the time focused on the nudity, not the writer’s subject.
Nudity has its place in films and stage. I always find remarkable the way in which European films casually permit characters to shed clothes in situations calling for it, not as attention-getting devices such as happens in American films (and usually with stunning looking actresses or hulky males) but as part of life. It’s the opposite of exploitation.
Which brings me to the new Spanish film, “The Artist and the Model,” from Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba. The black-and-white film takes place during World War II in a fairly isolated corner of occupied France near the Spanish border.
There an aging, internationally renowned sculptor, Marc Cros, played with extraordinary sensitivity and soul by 83-year-old French actor Jean Rochefort, is living out the remainder of his life without enthusiasm or nostalgia. He is tired of war and too uninspired to find solace in creative work.
Then a young female anti-Fascist escapee from a refugee camp in Catalonia, Merce (Spanish actress Aida Folch), turns up in his small village. Marc’s wife (the great Claudia Cardinale no less) sees an opportunity to re-awaken her husband’s dormant artistry.
She invites the young woman to their home to eat and then urges Marc to hire her as a model. Marc’s entire career has been a quest for the human form, in particular the female body. Unlike his friend Matisse — the name-dropping is so casual you figure he doesn’t even realize it — Marc has no other subject.
His wife senses that were this young woman to model for Marc he might take one last stab at achieving the purity of form he has pursued across a long career. She is right.
After overcoming her understandable reluctance to shed her clothes in front of this octogenarian, artist or no artist, Merce takes up quarters in his modest cabin-studio up the hill and models for him daily in the nude.
However, Merce or rather Folch models as much for the viewer as she does for the artist. Cinematographer Daniel Vilar’s camera pans over the woman’s soft, smooth body, examining her shoulders, breasts, buttocks, arms, neck, feet and genitalia.
Folch is nude in modeling scenes, of course, but her character has grown so accustomed to that state that she remains nude for most of the film. Trueba certainly means this unmelodramatic, contemplative film to be a meditation on artistic inspiration, mortality and the need for art and beauty.
But he spends so much time unabashedly luxuriating in the sight of female nudity that such themes, again, take a back seat. Even he apparently grows aware of the quiet eroticism of this casual exhibitionism. At one point Marc angrily throws down a drawing pencil and storms out of the studio into the surrounding forest.
Eighty or not, the man has become aroused. His wife is most amused by this later that evening. Did she notice? she asks. You’re never quite sure whether Merce did or not. But the next day she is unusually tender toward her aging employer.
The war does visit the studio in the form of a young male resistance fighter whom Merce harbors and then takes to her bed. The film mostly avoids dramatic incidents even here so it’s never quite clear how active the model is in the resistance movement other than helping guide the occasional soldier through mountains she knows so well.
When a German officer does appear at the cabin, the episode defies expectations. The army office (Götz Otto) is in fact an art historian and Marc’s biographer. He deeply admires this “enemy” artist and clearly wishes the war over — one he is unlikely to survive, however — so he can resume his real work.
Another charming and unexpected scene comes when Marc encourages Merce’s appreciation of a Rembrandt sketch. He shows her how so much is indicated about the people drawn in what he calls “a masterpiece with no pretenses at being a masterpiece.”
Would that this slow film, written by Trueba and famed screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, had more scenes such as these and less ogling of Folch’s scenic body. Like the director of “Steambath” — who since it was a play could later correct his mistake — Trueba miscalculates the nudity.
It’s never less than tasteful but is gratuitous. Trueba isn’t able to see the model’s body with the artist’s eye. Instead it becomes the movie’s obsession. Scenes exist solely as a pretext for the young farm girl to disrobe. The pursuit of art takes a back seat to the hungering gaze of male eyes.
The virtues of this film lie in the acting. As one who grew up watching Rochefort in films, he more than any other actor has come to to define for me a certain ineffable Frenchness. He embodies the French love of life and art and, yes, women. A couple of scenes of Rochefort sitting at a sidewalk cafe sipping coffee from a demitasse speaks volumes.
And when he praises the body of his former model, meaning his wife, for its perfection, Treuba in casting the legendary Italian actress has for viewers of a certain age given those sentiments all the validation needed. Did cinema ever enjoy a more beautiful woman that Claudia Cardinale in her prime?
She and Rochefort are veterans of five decades in film and bring to this film a kind of experience that cannot be faked. It is a treat to watch such pros work.
It is a credit to Folch that she more than holds her own in this august company and this has nothing to do with the loveliness of her body. She is a thoroughly grounded actress with wonderful expressiveness.
She conveys so much simply by the way she hungrily gobbles up her soup in an early scene or how she stares after Rochefort when he storms into the woods.
She is a real find for international audiences with this film. One can only hope to see more of her but perhaps less of her body in the near future.
Opens: August 2, 2013 (Cohen Media Group)
Production company: Fernando Trueba P.C.
Cast: Jean Rochefort, Aida Folch, Claudia Cardinale, Götz Otto, Chus Lampreave, Martin Gamet, Christian Sinniger
Director: Fernando Trueba
Screenwriters: Jean-Claude Carrière, Fernando Trueba
Producer: Cristina Huete
Director of photography: Daniel Vilar
Production designer: Pilar Revuelta
Costume designer: Lala Huete
Editor: Marta Velasco
No rating, 105 minutes