State Of The Artist!
The Artist 2011 France/Belgium
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Screening at UK cinemas.
Warning: There will be very slight
spoilers silently creeping into this review.
I really wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see The Artist but there’s been so much ballyhoo about it lately that I felt compelled to take a look. I’m a bit cynical when it comes to public reaction over what is, for all intents and purposes, a silent movie. I’ve watched a fair few silent movies and enjoyed most of them, so that really wasn’t a bother for me, although I was worried a carbon copy of the style of silent cinema would prove less entertaining than the public reaction would have me believe.
Also, I’m quite angry in some ways that the public are treating a silent movie as a novelty item... as if such a thing shouldn’t be allowed to exist within the modern cinema landscape... frankly it’s like people are throwing their hands up to cheer for something which they see as a circus performance to relieve them of the nagging boredom of yet another Hollywood blockbuster.
Another thing I’m quite angry about is that the majority of the audiences who have enjoyed this film would not normally be caught dead seeing a French (or any other non-English speaking country for that matter) film because they don’t like subtitles. Honestly, the amount of times I’ve been “warned” by cinema staff on the rare occasions we do get a foreign release that the film is not in English and has... pause to look both ways in case the next word shocks people... subtitles! My response to this is usually to sarcastically... or possibly just ironically... point out to the ticket seller that I am very glad indeed that the film in question has subtitles because I am not in any way multi or bi-lingual (or even bi-curious for that matter) and if the movie didn’t have those... well I wouldn’t be able to understand it now, would I? How grateful I am to the generous movie company for making subtitles available on their few (very few) foreign language movies.
By now the ticket seller has usually gone white in the face but at least they don’t pre-book specific seats anymore. You wanna see the look on a ticket seller’s face when they ask you where you want to sit and you reply that this is entirely dependent on the aspect ratio that the film is being projected in and could they please tell me what that is so I can make that kind of decision?
Anyway... I get angry with audiences who will only go and see a French film if it’s a silent film and doesn’t have subtitles. Perhaps the huge amount of American actors is enough to comfort them during their anxiety or maybe, just maybe, there’s so many US actors in it that they didn’t realise it was French... all I know is that, being a silent movie, the film has no subtitles but plenty of intertitles... so I really don’t understand modern audiences I guess. You still have to possess the increasingly rare and special commodity of being able to read so... what’s the difference?
What I do know, though, is that if The Artist has become the success it has due to audiences of this nature, it has to be said that, after watching it and being moved and entertained by the shenanigans of the characters/actors on screen... it truly deserves to be a success.
A big thing you need to understand about this movie though, is that it’s not trying to doggedly copy silent movies. It’s definitely more Planet Terror than Deathproof in terms of retrospective attitude, for example (and to push a comparison). Both those two halves of the movie phenomenon of Grindhouse were looking back referentially at 70s grindhouse cinema but Planet Terror elevated itself beyond that by looking back at it through a postmodern haze of nostalgia, whereas Deathproof pretty much became the thing it was trying to copy too well (and therefore ended up being the dull and less watchable half of that particular double-bill).
The Artist does the same thing as Planet Terror in that it doesn’t try to be the thing it’s trying to be a pastiche of so much... the film is not actually set during the silent period of cinema but starts just on the turn into talkies in 1927 (the year the first feature length talkie, arguably, The Jazz Singer was released) and goes through to about 1932 or 1933, which is when musicals really took off... which is actually an important detail for the ending of this particular movie. If anything, and it gets quite blatant during the early reels, the film is looking more like Singin’ In The Rain and then peeking backwards from there as a starting point than actually going back and researching the way certain things would have been in the twenties... at least that’s what I believe was happening (not that the film makers didn't do their research on this one... quite obviously they did). The similarities and gestures in the scenes outside the theatre where our leading man and woman meet for the first time, for example, look like the crowds and their reactions have been lifted right out of the aforementioned musical and plopped right on down in The Artist. People who know Singin’ In The Rain well, down to the smallest details, will spot a lot of this stuff happening throughout the movie.
There are, of course, loads of other references (Garbo and such like) but I also thought the leading man... who is presumably modelled here as some sort of cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable, had very much the air of Gene Kelly playing Don Lockwood about him... and, to be sure, it also covers problems caused by the same dilemma... the effect of talking pictures on the silent movie stars, many of whom were big stars who were out of a job almost overnight because their voices didn’t fit, followed and aggravated a couple of years later by the notorious Wall Street Crash. This isn’t the specific reason here why George Valentin played by Jean Dujardin in this picture takes the downward spiral to possible suicide... here the main protagonist is as much to blame as his circumstances. I won’t spoil that one for you here though... or what the final outcome is.
This is not just a silent movie though, by any stretch. Much as you might think the movie is going to be something of a one trick pony, it really isn’t. There’s some nice playing around with the language of cinema, especially in the scene where George points a revolver at his head... at us, being the camera eye. I was just waiting for those four frames of red to be inserted like in Spellbound at this point... the fact that they weren’t, I feel, was a missed opportunity on the part of the director. I won’t tell you how this scene, which plays very near to the end of the film, winds up but I do find it interesting that the juxtaposition of two visuals which can use the same onomatopoeic reference is just one of many “tricks of the trade” that a French film will gladly use to confound an audience but which the American’s tend not to do so much in cinema these days... although, clever use of similar “pull-the-rug-from-under-the-audience” explorations used to get used every week on episodes of the TV show The Simpsons. This is good stuff people... and exactly what cinema is brilliant at.
There are two great sequences with sound in this movie too... one at the end which is an homage to Busby Berkeley but without the scale and the other a very clever sequence in the middle which is used to signal the beginning of the decline of the main character while the leading lady invests in the modern technology and begins to soar! Again it plays around with audience perceptions filtered into a viewpoint by everything that has gone before and then up-ended to achieve a surprise effect. Nice work!
This film is actually quite well crafted but, better than that, it’s quite witty and has a cute dog! A cute dog who runs to the rescue like a mini Rin Tin Tin in a sequence where the very essence of cinema is being used as an instrument of suicide... um... when someone is about to possibly burn to death from lighting up heaps of celluloid.
What really matters, at the end of the day though, is how this film made me feel.
Well I could say that it felt like I’d heard Kim Novak being raped if I was being unkind and I’m not about to turn this review into a debate about the very long history of reusing soundtracks in movies (maybe that’s another article). What I will say though is if you put a well known piece of music by Bernard Herrmann up against pretty much anything that any modern composer could write (and don’t get me wrong... the original score by Ludovic Bource is really good in this one), then Herrmann’s score is going to blow anything else away. So, yes, the love theme for Vertigo is very overpowering in its use in this movie towards the end and yes, it does fit in very well with the sequence being scored (which bears no resemblance to what the music was originally written for in any way shape or form) but this does seem to me to be a severe case of temp-trackitus I have to say. It’s like the director or producers lost confidence in the composer, whereas the composer has already proved that he has the talent and skill to score a scene like this... at least in my book he does. It wasn’t necessary to use it but, at the same time, Miss Novak’s comments about being raped by the music while watching The Artist are a little ignorant considering the historical precedents... and she certainly didn’t complain about it being used in 12 Monkeys, as far as I can recall?
So no... I didn’t really get to hear Kim Novak being raped... but I certainly did find myself sniffling all through the final reel and... well okay... pretty much bawling my eyes out. I think partly that’s to do with just getting old and becoming more emotional as the years go by... that’s my excuse anyway.
Despite the time setting and allusions to silent cinema... The Artist really harkens back to those brilliantly over-stylised 50s musicals (even though this movie is not a musical) and so this kind of feeling of having the tears welling up in your eyes while your heart swells up in your chest is not entirely unexpected in this instance. Although it feels a bit hokey and fake in some ways, it’s hokey and fake in all the right places and underplays what is a genuinely well crafted, or at least consistently crafted, piece of movie-making. This one’s a definite recommendation from me and, honestly... who else but the French can make a perfect film about the process of making American movies. Get yourself to a movie house before it goes!