Monday, 27 February 2012

The Artist

In one word? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Which roughly translates to "atoning for educability through delicate beauty" in other words, having something to say when you have nothing to say. And this is exactly the predicament The Artist has left me in. It's one of those experiences where you have an infinite amount to say about it but at the same time you are literally rendered speechless. I want to share every thought and analysis of mine with anyone willing to listen, yet I'm too concerned that what I have to say might risk undermining the appreciation the film truly deserves. Taking into account that people have different definitions of what quality is and what it means to them, The Artist is an example of what I would classify as a quality film in EVERY respect. What a sensational body of work.

It is hard to believe that director Michel Hazanavicius had trouble gathering up investors for his small silent vision. I will begin with my preconceptions. I welcomed the notion of a feature-length silent film as  I am currently in the middle of producing one of my own. I have given the silent film genre a lot of deep thought. In the end I figured the only way a silent film could succeed nowadays is by making the silent part a fundamental aspect in the story. Meaning, without the silence there would be no reason to tell the story or make the film.

It's the kind of film that leaves a cheshire cat smile plastered across your face from ear to ear. A marvelous performance from Jean Dujardin (as George Valentin), who I firmly believe has the most charming and infectious smile on planet earth. "Goofy with just the slightest hint of cockiness, and it could probably cure most diseases." As my mother would say "he defiantly decorates my Christmas tree". And I can't go without mentioning Berenice Bejo's character, Peppy Miller who was so full of life and credence that you can't help but love her instantly. She aces the character so perfectly you forget there is any acting involved.

On a more profound level; The Artist offers insight into what life would be like without sound, and what it would be like if it were all of a sudden it was interrupted by noise. It does this, however, in an attractive and heartwarming way and manages to avoid laying these suggestions on too thick. On a more personal note, I found myself able to relate to Valentin on a much more profound level. It's the late 1920s and the 'talkies' era is on its way in, with the age of silence on its way out... along Mr. Valentin. I don't know whether other people felt the same, but I saw this as Hazanavicius' way of touching upon identity crisis. And what it means to have an identity.
Without going in too deep; I saw Valentin suffer what many people face at some point or another in their life: a period of uncertainty and insecurity, a change in how they perceive their role in society. In Valentin's case he witnesses his empire and sole meaning for life collapse in front of him. Everything he has known to be great, to be 'quality' art is altered overnight. His definition of 'quality' is no longer viewed with any kind of merit. I think what is most upsetting for Valentin though is that the talkies didn't "conquer" silent film. It was gracefully welcomed by production companies, audiences and the like. The talkies were the impressionists of film. It isn't that Valentin necessarily did not want to make the transition, and it's not until the end that we hear his French accent. Valentine plays the all-American hero in his movies; saving damsels in distress and doing good deeds. But what 1920's American audience would want to hear their television hero speak with a French accent.
It's about adapting and being able to accept change. But it's also whether or not you can physically make the changes that need to be made.

Sound. It's what defines us in everyday life, is it not? Someone physically incapable of hearing is labeled 'deaf'. A person who can't speak is filed under 'mute'. Furthermore, it distinguishes us from others; pour language, our accents, the sound of our laughs, cries and sighs. If you think about it, sound is such a enormous part of who we are.

Well on the topic of sound, I want to take a moment to comment on how silent films were never actually silent. If you stop and think about it, every "silent" film was viewed along with an orchestra. But why? Is it because pure silence is just too uncomfortable? In a way the word 'raw' comes into mind. A certain in The Artist comes to mind; the embrace between Peppy and George after his close suicide encounter. It was a completely silent scene. And it is during this scene that I felt for the first in my experience with film a wave of crystallization wash over me. Their emotions were so intense and powerful that it forces the viewer, to some extent, feel what it is they are feeling. It's a very moving moment in the film. I understood how important silence was for actors back then. In a way it forced the viewers to be more receptive, to physically experience and feel the story. However, with dialogue in films we are able to relax a bit more, to be distracted by the sound of voices and to just receive and process the words. Thus, often eluding what film was originally all about. Creating a sense of relation between the film and audience.
I couldn't peel my eyes away from the screen for one second during The Artist.

To conclude, I want to finish by bringing your attention to the film's ending. Our dear George Valentin has found a new place in society, a way of embracing the change in a way that embraces him back. Talkies are now in full-swing. Peppy and George perform their duo dance routine together on set. The director calls 'cut' and the film ends with their beaming smiles, panting into the camera. The one thing that cinema edits out of their films today is the first 'real' sound we hear from the silent actors in the end. Pure brilliance.

My favorite scene? When Peppy sneaks into George's dressing room and pretends they are embracing. George walks in on her in the middle of her passionate embrace with his jacket. The best part? Instead of acting as most A-list celebrities would and have security haul her away, he very casually explains that she'll need a signature look to set her above other aspiring actresses. He takes a make-up pencil and draws a dainty beauty spot above her lip. So.... effortless. Breathtaking, really.

The Artist; Michel Hazanavicius' way of thanking the silent era for building the foundation of cinema, and how it has developed since.


To say Hugo is a visually beautiful and enchanting work of art would be an understatement. Hugo is a charming and spellbindingly nostalgic opus dedicated to the magic of cinema. With Oliver Twist elements and a Harry Potterish vibe, Hugo's story has potential to be the next Chronicles of Narnia or Peter Pan. The elegant tribute to the fantastical Georges Melies exhibits breathtaking cinematography and set designs. Its inertness, however, couldn't be masked by its aesthetic pleasure. Like the book, which depends equally on its pictures as it does on the words, the movie wouldn't be such a popular nominee at the Oscars if it weren't for Dante Ferretti and Robert Richardson.

Having said all this, I have to confess that I didn't watch Hugo on the big screen... or in 3D. I am fully aware of the difference in impact that would have had on my experience. With the whole 3D craze still going on, many movies are being made for the 3D screen even though their story doesn't rely on it. Watching Hugo on my television at home I found myself constantly aware of the lingering shots (specifically timed for the 3D screen) and distracted by it's slow pace. I kept waiting for the story to start and was trying to grasp a hold of anything coherent. I truly believe that if the movie had adopted a more focused plot it would have been much more successful. I am intrigued to read the book now and see whether it shares the same lack of direction as the film. 

Still, if I ever create anything half as good as Martin Scorsese's Hugo I will die happy! 

Next up? A Trip to The Moon and a look into the treasury of early cinema...