Sarah Bakewell, At the Existential Cafe
Trueba’s The Artist and the Model is the art of film raised to the highest level. Its story is poignant, its intelligence is palpable, its cinematography is mesmerizing, its acting is subtle and powerful and its beauty is breathtaking. And in a film that addresses life and art and beauty and work, it is the very face of the artist Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) that comes to represent them all, a face that Trueba closes in on with love and craftsmanship, a face that seems to contain the very themes of the film itself.
An elderly sculptor (Rochefort) has isolated himself in a small village apart from the business of war in Occupied France during World War II. One day, his wife (Claudia Cardinale) discovers a Spanish refugee (Aida Folch) sleeping rough and washing herself in the village’s fountain, She brings the girl home to her husband to be his next (and last) model, to be the muse for him that she had once first been.
In exchange, the young woman, Mercè, receives room and board and a salary. Awkward at first, their relationship–the artist and the model– grows into a symbiotic one: she inspires the sculptor and he transforms her into his masterpiece. In their life together, she is joyous and he is crotchety. She is young and he is wise. She is involved in the war and he is trying to keep it at bay.
The film is shot in black and white. But to merely say “black and white” does not capture the luminous beauty of the photography. Each scene has a shimmering silver light that imbues the film with both beauty and gravitas. Each scene seems as if a Richard Avedon portrait had come to life. I do not exaggerate when I say that this may be the most beautiful film I have ever seen.
The slow rhythm of the film may be off-putting to some, but it should not. We are watching something very special here. The creative process has always been a difficult one to portray, and a slew of films have done it badly. But not this. This comes as close as is probably possible in capturing the artistic process: idea, incubation, trial, and execution.
And aside from our watching the process, there is the sculptor’s instruction for his model. At one point, he tells her his version of creation. God, he says, having created the beauty of the universe, wanted someone to share it with and so he created woman. (He believes the female body and olive oil are God’s greatest creations.) Together, God and the woman, had a son Adam.
At another time, he takes a scribbled pen-and-ink drawing of Rembrandt’s and explains to Mercè what the artist was doing. In a simple three minutes of film, he gives a master class in art–and one that any art student should attend to.
We learn more about the artist when a Nazi officer drives up to his mountain studio. Mercè–who at that point is hiding a wounded Resistance fighter–is naturally on alert. But the Nazi is there to discuss the biography he is writing on the artist. (He already has some 400 pages.) After the two discuss the book, the Nazi departs, telling Cros that he has been transferred to the Russian Front. We get the idea that he’ll never live long enough to finish his book.
The stories surrounding the making of The Artist and the Model are a lesson in creativity as well. Based loosely on the sculptor Aridste Maillol and his final model, Trueba began working on the script in 1990, intending to collaborate with his brother the sculptor Maximo. But Maximo’s young and sudden death, put Trueba off the project. It was not until, Rochefort, whom Trueba had already considered to play his sculptor, told him he was retiring that Trueba decided to go ahead with it.
It is undoubtedly, the high point of Trueba’s career so far, as it probably is also for Jean Rochefort. Indeed, like the sculptor that he plays, Rochefort’s finest performance–in a long and celebrated career–is here in this his final performance.
Certainly, there is much good art around. There is very little great art. The Artist and the Model falls into the second category.
Here is the trailer:
The philosopher, political theorist and writer, Hannah Arendt has received a thoughtful and deserving biopic from director Margarethe von Trotta, in her eponymous film, Hannah Arendt. The film’s intelligence reflects the life of the mind that Arendt lived–and an honest and hard intelligence at that. Concentrating on the period when Arendt covered the Adolph Eichmann trials for New Yorker magazine–and the fury that it unleashed– it shows Arendt resolute in her thinking, uncolored by prejudice or sympathies.
Her coverage of the Eichmann trial ended with these words, this pronouncement:
Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.
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Arendt’s biography is well know. Born into a secular Jewish family, she studied under Martin Heidegger with whom she reportedly had a long affair. Her dissertation was on Love and Saint Augustine, but after its completion she was forbidden to teach in German universities because of being Jewish. She left Germany for France, but while there she was sent to the Grus detention camp, from which she escaped after only a few weeks. In 1941, Arendt, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her mother escaped to the United States.
From there she embarked on an academic career that saw her teaching at many of the U.S.’s most prestigious universities (she was the first female lecturer at Princeton University) and publishing some of the most influential works on political theory of the time.
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But the film, concerns a small time period in her life–but one for which many people still hold a grudge. The film begins darkly with the Mosada snatching Eichmann off a dark road in Argentina. Back in New York City, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) and the American novelist, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) are sipping wine and gossipping about the infidelities of McCarthy’s suitors. Even genius can be mundane–perhaps a subtle reference to Arendt’s conclusions from the trial. When news of Eichmann’s arrest–and trial in Israel–is announced, Arendt writes to William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) at the New Yorker, asking if she might cover the trial for the magazine. Shawn is excited; his assistant, Francis Wells (Megan Gay,) less so.
Of course, the trial–and Arendt’s commission to follow it–is fascinating and controversial and we listen in on Arendt and her husband and their circle of friends as they debate and argue and opine. Aside from Mary McCarthy and the head of the German department at the New School where Arendt is teaching, the guests at Arendt’s apartment are all friends from Europe, German-Jews who have escaped the Shoah/Holocaust. Listening to their different conversations is fascinating and electrifying. This is a movie about “thinking.”
In Israel, Arendt meets with old friends, friends who remember her argumentative spirit, and stays with the Zionist, Kurt Blumenfeld. From the outset, one sees that Arendt is not thinking along the same lines as the masses following the trial.
“Under conditions of tyranny it is much easier to act than to think.”
At the trial, there is a telling moment, when Arendt watches Eichmann in his glass cage sniffling, rubbing his nose and dealing with a cold. It is then, a least in the film, that she comes to understand that this monster is not a MONSTER. She sees him as simply a mediocre human being who did not think. It is from here that she coins the idea of the “banality of evil.”
Upon returning home–with files and files of the trial’s transcripts–her article for the New Yorker is slow in coming. Her husband has a stroke, and the enormity of what she has to say needs to be perfect.
When it is finally published, the angry reaction is more than great. The critic Irving Howe called it a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. (Just last week, the word “shitstorm” was added to the German dictionary, the Duden, partly due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the word to describe the public outcry she faced over the Eurozone’s finacial crisis. It is an apt term for what occurred upon publication of Arendt’s coverage.)
It is this extraordinary anger towards Arendt–and her staunch defense–that makes up the final moments of the film. In the closing moments, Arendt speaks to a packed auditorium of students (and a few administrators). She has just been asked to resign, which she refuses to do. These are her closing words:
“This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”
This is, more than anything else, a film about thinking.
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The extraordinary anger shown in the film is still felt by many today and, in fact, seems to have colored some of the reviews that I have read and heard. Some of these reviewers seem to be reviewing the life and work of Arendt and not the film of Margarethe von Trotta, for von Trotta’s film is a unique, masterpiece. It is more than a biography of a controversial thinker…it is a portrait of thought itself. Arendt attempts to define “evil”–certainly an apt exercise at the time. She defines it–to her friends, to her classes, to her colleagues, and to herself–and finds that it is not “radical” as she once had posited. It is merely ordinary. Goodness, she sees, is what has grandeur.
The film, Hannah Arendt, is well worth seeking out. It is thoughtful, provoking, controversial, and, at times, even funny. You can’t ask for much more for the price of a movie ticket. As always, here’s a trailer: