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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » A Model for Matisse
A Model for Matisse
First Run Features // Unrated // August 22, 2006
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted September 11, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Monique Bourgeois first met Henri Matisse in 1941, when she was just 21 years old. He was quite ill and in need of a nurse; she applied for and got the job. So begins a most peculiar lifelong friendship between a world famous artist and a quiet young woman who would soon join the Dominican order, her name now Sister Jacques-Marie. She would model for him, he would fall in love with her, she viewed him more as a grandfather type. It was not quite romance but far more than friendship, something special for both.

Following her work translating Sister Jacques-Marie's autobiography, scholar and filmmaker Barbara F. Freed realized just what a story she had at her disposal, and so she set out to make "A Model For Matisse," a straightforward documentary that allows Sister Jacques-Marie to tell the story in her own words. The key to her story is more than just their relationship; the two also collaborated on what Matisse would eventually call his masterpiece: the Chapel of the Rosary, a gorgeous yet modest chapel tucked away in the quiet village of Vence.

Watching Sister Jacques-Marie reminisce, you can feel the love she felt for the artist. She beams with the wonder of lovely memories, she shies at the embarrassment of youth. She's a wonderful storyteller, honest and charming and funny, making the perfect subject for a film like this.

Freed fills her movie with archival footage and long, delicate close-ups of Matisse's artwork. The combination of Sister Jacques-Marie's stories and a narration that helps fill in the blanks works to get us to understand Matisse's choices as an artist and just why his pieces - especially the chapel - are so important. The film makes no assumptions as to the viewers' knowledge of the art world and forces nothing upon the newcomer (in fact, it's OK not to be wowed by Matisse's paintings: neither was Sister Jacques-Marie!), yet it also keeps things on a level so art buffs never feel slighted. It's a movie for both rookies and longtime admirers alike.

(About that narration: the main misstep Freed takes is in having Matisse's letter read in English, but with a very heavy French accent. This distracts. Why not leave the text in the original French, adding in subtitles? Or why not use a lighter accent?)

It's Sister Jacques-Marie's stories that keep us captivated throughout, but it's Freed's careful eye that really lets the movie shine, filling the screen with the art of a true master. "A Model For Matisse" is one part biography and one part art history lesson, and both are quite special.

The DVD

Video


"A Model For Matisse" was shot on video, but it's not at all as bad as one might assume. The image is clean and serviceable. Archival footage is less so, for obvious reasons. (Both Gaumont and Pathé felt it necessary to slap a logo in the corner of the stock footage they provided for the movie, which is irritating but unavoidable.) Presented in the original 1.33:1 full frame format.

Audio

The soundtrack contains both English and French, depending on the speaker; the stereo sound being simple and problem-free. The always legible subtitles over the French dialogue are part of the film itself and as such not removable.

Extras

A few text pages of Director's Notes allow Freed to discuss the story behind the movie; a few more text pages provide a biography of Freed herself.

A photo gallery combines vintage photographs of the subjects, shots from the film, and pics taken behind-the-scenes.

More text: two obituaries of Sister Jacques-Marie, available in PDF files through your DVD-ROM. (Her death came two years after the film's completion but one year before its video release.)

A trailer gallery for other First Run releases and a page detailing how to contact the company round out the disc.

Final Thoughts

This is a minimal yet fascinating portrait (no pun intended), a thorough examination of a marvelous artwork and the woman who helped inspire it. Recommended to anyone with an interest in art and/or biographies.
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