Friday, 27 April 2012 06:09

Hollywood with a French accent

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Cinema is a narcissistic art and we love it for that. Somehow, some of the best films in history have been films on films. That's also the case with this year’s Academy Award winning (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design) "The Artist."

Michel Hazanavicius is known for his talent for remakes and reinterpretations such as his spy movie parody series "OSS 117" or "La classe americaine" - a TV movie made entirely from extracts from old Warner Bros. films. In his newest production the French director boldly approached the silent cinema genre. The film, based on the well-known theme of fading silent movie stars and the rise of talkie celebrities (see: "A Star is Born", "Sunset Boulevard", "All about Eve" and "Singing in the Rain") is full of references and quotations from classic cinema. At the same time, it's far from being a hermetic homage to cinema meant for movie freaks.

The success of "The Artist" seems especially spectacular if we take into account that this season the big screens hosted two films referring to early cinema history. "The Artist"'s rival was Scorsese's "Hugo"; a 3D production set in Paris at the times of Méliès. Both building on the enchantment of old cinema, the films opted for entirely different types of narration to create an image of silent cinematography's charm. While Scorsese's film assumes and makes use of all the benefits of film technology and special effects in order to revive and visualise the magic of cinema, "The Artist"'s minimalist form praises cinema for its ability to generate poetry through realism.

"The Artist" is not a silent movie, it's a pastiche, and a very intelligent one.

The success of "The Artist" lies precisely in the fact that the film is not what it seems to be; it's not an imitation. Making a classic silent black and white movie in the era of 3D would simply be a pretentious anachronism. But "The Artist" is not a silent movie, it's a pastiche, and a very intelligent one. Pastiche variations on earlier works can serve as creative platforms for writers and artists to confront the past and the present in intertextual games; in "The Artist" this confrontation occurs in the particularly paradoxal construction of a silent film on the rise of sound films.

The refined construction of the film is nevertheless barely remarkable, hidden under a simple and familiar story theme, which allowed the director to play with historical perspectives and experiment with the medium. The film is full of surprising twists, genre changes and gags concerning cinema itself. If you listen closely, for instance, "The Artist" is not, strictly speaking, a silent movie. The invasion of sound comes about in the scene of the movie star's nightmare – a witty way to show the artist's fear of the new invention and at the same time a brilliant trick showing the bizarreness of sound in movies at that time. While the movie itself is an exploration of cinema through the clash of silence and sound, it doesn't choose either one of them, but finds a clever reconciliation at the end.

The movie is also a chance to recreate an image of Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century. Unlike many movies, "The Artist" neither criticises nor glorifies the golden age of Hollywood. The director presents the actors with soft irony. Georg Valentin is the epitome of a handsome, self-confident silent movie star; Rudolf Valentino, Gene Kelly and Maurice Chevalier all in one. His young protégé Peppy Miller is a pretty wannabe starlet and a great dancer. Both stubborn and naïve they are gorgeous burlesque caricatures in themselves. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (and let's not forget about Uggie – the Jack Russel Terrier) brightly reinterpreted silent cinema acting, translating the archaic mannerisms of silent films in a way that is comprehensible for modern spectators. The duet overcame the risk of irrelevance and overacting and at the same time managed to keep all the slapstick comedy and drama of silent cinema, making it a pure pleasure to watch them on screen. Hollywood hasn't been this entertaining for a long time.

While the happy ending leaves an intact image of Hollywood reconciled with sound and image, it does carry a punchline signalling a much broader discussion on the game of perspectives, national stereotypes and cultural appropriations. Valentin's last and only words - "with pleasure!", pronounced with a strong French accent to reveal the actor's foreign identity - also bring attention to the fact that one of the best recent images of Hollywood has been made by a European director.

Last modified on Friday, 27 April 2012 06:39
Monika Proba

Monika Proba studied culture anthropology in Warsaw and Paris. She is currently living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In Café Cinema she will be tracking images of Europe in classical and modern cinema.

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