DIRECTED BY MICHAEL HAZANAVICIUS
STARRING: JEAN DUJARDIN, BERENICE BEJO, UGGIE (the dog), JAMES CROMWELL, PENELOPE ANN MILLER with MALCOLM McDOWELL and JOHN GOODMAN
Michael Hazanavicius pushes the borders of Silent Cinema simultaneously paying his tribute to it with ‘the Artist,’ one of the most celebrated films made and released last year. It’s not mimicry. He doesn’t hide in the folds of yesteryear curtains on Hollywood’s majestic stage as the tycoons go out on a selling spree. The style is uncharacteristic. The performances go easy on exaggeration, the action being too continuous and gracefully paced. There has been enough deliberation in establishing that the films being filmed in the film and the film in itself are not two of a kind. George Valentin is not the same as Jean Dujardin, both being actors in movies that don’t talk.
Let me throw the cards on the table up front and let you know that I haven’t watched much of Silent Cinema myself. Charlie Chaplin is an exception. Laurel and Hardy, a bit of Buster Keaton and I think I’ve watched one film of the Marx Brothers. That’s about it. There isn’t enough nostalgia that this film could possibly evoke where I, quite frankly, belong to the ‘future’ where films talk, sing and dance with action choreography and with actors replaced by cartoons sometimes.
With that being said, it’s not like I wouldn’t like a Silent movie that doesn’t change my opinion. I’d ideally not want one to. ‘the Artist’, for one, doesn’t care. It’s not a prescription. It’s a poster. It tells you exactly what to expect from it. In fact, you’ll find it better to under-expect, much like I did. That’s how I ended up liking it more than I thought I was supposed to.
The film is set in 1927 and plays along the timeline. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a Hollywood actor peaking before his fall. Dujardin, reminding us strongly of a young Sean Connery, has the build as well as subtlety in his flamboyance to be playing the Superstar. We know he’s French but he’s made to look as Italian as his name sounds. I shall go on and assume that there hasn’t been an actual influence in the conception of his character, but if I had to, I’d say I see a Douglas Fairbanks sort of American hero in him. His movies, glossily-titled (‘A Russian Affair’ followed up with ‘A German Affair’) and almost entirely about him (a Dog plays second lead), are nonsense entertainment under the excuse of “This is what the people want.” Kinograph Studios could be an extensive parody, but I don’t know. I can’t comment.
Berenice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, an aspiring starlet whose discovery is accidental, her success – much deliberated. Bejo’s height, slenderness and her good-natured face are almost uncharacteristic of the usual Hollywood heartthrob, we find. Garbo never smiled this innocent, as far as I know. Nor Paulette Goddard (‘the Great Dictator’). Maybe Virginia Cherrill, who plays the Blind girl in Chaplin’s ‘City Lights.’ This likeability and her confidence had me compare Bejo to a favourite, both of Roger Ebert and myself – Amy Adams. At one point, I almost asked why not her. Like I said, Bejo is too tall, too slender and (there's no other way to put it) too French with her physique. There were times when I could almost catch her tan. Adams, on the other hand, can feign haughtiness when she wanted to and come out likeable at that – we have seen her do that in ‘Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day.’ Plus, as the expression goes, she has meat on her bones.
But then there’s the effort of getting past the familiarity of as celebrated an actress as Adams, a barrier which someone like Bejo, who’s relatively lesser known, could easily sidestep. John Goodman as the no-nonsense Hollywood director Al Zimmer faces a much bigger problem. In Goodman, we identify more with actor than character. I could almost hear his throaty drawl in some (silent) sequences where he faces the camera. It’s a huge disadvantage. Malcolm McDowell (‘A Clockwork Orange’) with whom we’re as familiar, finds himself on better grounds in an almost unspeaking role.
This, definitely, would’ve been a big issue when films started to talk from being pantomimes with nothing but a music score conducted live or re-recorded. It would’ve been as bizarre to hear Chaplin talk for the first time in a movie, as it would be to watch Al Pacino go silent for the sake of one. Can you fathom that? This is the crisis that Valentin undergoes in ‘the Artist.’ He’s married to Silent Cinema, his actual wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) being a dinner-table guest at most. He doesn’t want to talk. Neither do the Director and Producers at Kinograph. Silent Cinema had not lost its charm, but humanity, for the very simple basic nature of it, must move on. Valentin refuses to.
He does a Garfunkel, or a Ringo Starr as you could call it. He produces, directs and stars in a silent film called ‘Tears of Love’ where he writes himself as dying in the end, leaving his Dog and a woman behind. The climax is empowering; delightful. But there’s no audience left to savour it, save for Peppy. She weeps at the ending. We don’t know what got her to, we can but guess. The forsaken man’s last-breath effort. The sincerity in his drive to entertain. The actual visual poetry. The dreadful sight of watching someone she cherishes with all her heart suffer.
This is a masterful scene, by the way. It is an intercut between scenes from the movie being projected, the actor-director and his dog resisting dejection that’s soon to show, and Peppy, who watches it with a partner from box-seats. Valentin, the hero of the movie, is pulled into the quicksand as his Dog watches; barks. The woman shouts too, asking him to grab her hand. He doesn’t. He prefers to sink instead. He does. Both the Dog and the Woman mourn. So does Peppy. And there’s no question as to who aches the most, as Valentin, the actor-director, exits the hall with his Dog trotting behind, tailcoat flowing.
Most of the sequences, as I mentioned before, are contemporary with their style. There aren’t too many close-up shots with the actor disarmed and compelled to exaggerate his or her emotion. The shots are long, continuous and careful with their pace, the subtle and underplayed performances empowered by an even simpler, down-to-earth storyline. The treatment is lax, with the film’s little emphasis on detail substantiated/found in a convenient sort of compliance with the fact that, in spite of everything, it still is a Silent Movie. It’s as under-produced and under-designed as the new Indiana Jones film. And, quite like Indy himself, it finds strength in its own minimalism.
‘the Artist’ is made by Michael Hazanavicius, a French filmmaker known for spy-parodies. Jean Dujardin too, we learn, is a Comedian. These people are new to us, but we can guess as much. I once hosted and was backstage for a show featuring a celebrated mime by the name of Laurent Decol. The man was French, simple and funny in everything he said/did, and yet his act was tragicomic. The explanation is simple. It takes a humorist to celebrate the weight of sadness, to derive joy from it. We need a comedian, an actual funny man to bring depth and seriousness to a role, not sacrificing the human aspect of it in the process. In Pantomime, we have a clear assertion of this logic.
I started with denial, adamantly refusing to accept legitimacy of a passion that can have driven one to make a film like ‘the Artist.’ I thought of Rob Marshall, I thought of ‘Chicago’ almost a decade ago. The Academy finds itself obliged to honour films that celebrate the never-ending machine that churns out almost a thousand movies a year. ‘Mulholland Drive’, in all its faith, didn’t put in a good word. ‘the Artist’ does. It’s a clean tribute from someone who absolutely drinks into the idea of selling Cinema; an idea that distorted itself with the advent of Noir and subsequent Exploitation eras. I could not possibly associate honesty with such an intention. Neither did I allow myself to be convinced otherwise.
Nevertheless, ‘the Artist’ is a glorious film, pristine; an amazing hour and a half spent on watching people who know what they’re set out to do and are pretty good at it. The Actors. The writer-director. The music score, to some extent (by Ludovic Bource). Let me remind you once again that this, as much as it can be called one, is NOT a Silent Movie. It’s a crafty exploit that doesn’t step out of its own absurdist atmosphere – one of those films that could be made, that should be made. One of those films where watching and liking it would be its own reward; which should be its only reward. I hope the Academy agrees with me on this one. The statuette has better hands to grace.