The year is 1943 and the setting Occupied France, just across the border from Spain. Here lives Marc Cros (played by the great veteran French actor Jean Rochefort) an elderly sculptor and painter whose muse deserted him years ago. He is married to the coquettish Léa (Claudia Cardinale) who many years previously was his model.
One day, Léa spots a young, impoverished girl washing her feet in the town fountain. Taking pity on the girl, Léa invites her in to her house for a hot meal which the young woman, named Mercé (Aida Folch) devours hungrily. Mercé is vague about what she is actually doing in France, and reveals little beyond the fact that she is Spanish.
Moreover, she is non-commital about her political persuasion, and whether or not she is a refugee from Francoist Spain. Being discreet, neither Léa or Raymond ask more than a few perfunctory questions.
In efforts to help Mercé, Lea casually suggests that she should pose as a model for her husband. He agrees, though hardly with any great show of enthusiasm, reconciled as he is to the loss of his creative juices. Despite his long artistic drought, he is an important figure in art and a friend to people like Matisse.
Mercé is to receive bed and board and some modest pay for modelling, although the work seems strange to her at first. She stays at the old cottage some distance above the town which does duty as the sculptor’s studio. The sculptor slowly makes his way up the hills one morning, walks into the cottage and the relationship begins. Summer, the sound of the cicadas, the trees in full leaf, the schoolchildren’s vivid imaginations as they try and spy on the model - director Trueba presents the whole scene in seductive beauty.
Raw and untutored about art and life, Mercé slowly learns to become comfortable as a model. In the process, Raymond lets her in on his feelings about artistic creation. There is a truly wonderful sequence in which he shows her a postcard print of a Rembrand sketch. He tells her she has to learn to 'see things,' pointing out the skill in individual aspects of the portraits, the timeless humanity in the family scene, as a little girl takes her first steps. At this point, you realise what a deeply intelligent screen-play Trueba and his collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière have fashioned between them.
The bond between artist and model becomes closer by the day, days which are precious to the sculptor Cros. He values every minute of every hour, conscious that he has so little time to create again. However, the quiet intimacies between artist and model are not left undisturbed. War intervenes in the shape of a wounded member of the Resistance, on the run from the Germans. Yet the central relationship endures, despite everything, until war’s end appears in sight.
For its touching reflections on how chance encounters can alter lives, on mortality and desire's unlikely revival, The Artist and The Model - shot entirely in black and white – is a small masterpiece.