The Artist – Review

The Artist (2011) 

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Starring Jean DujardinBérénice BejoJohn GoodmanJames CromwellMalcolm McDowell

In a way “The Artits” is a real love letter to silent movies from the 20s and 30s and to cinema in general. Clearly French producer/director/writer/editor Michel Hazanavicius knows his background in silent films and he understand them well enough to be able to pull off not just something that it’s incredibly reverential to that time and that type of film-making but at the same time clever enough to be appreciated by a modern audience and critics alike.

Hazanavicius seems to have a real understanding of the visual medium and knows how to tell a simple and honest story without relying on cheap special effects or heavy exposition. This is a real return to basics. They say “they don’t make them like they used to anymore”. Well, in this case, it seems that somebody actually has just made it exactly like they used to.

There’s a naive sensibility throughout “The Artist” that’s both charming and slightly infectious and it’s hard not to fall for it.

There are moments of inspired genius at play too: the very first moment we realise that it is actually a silent film we are watching, and so we have to read the expression in the character’s face as opposed to listening to an applause from the audience in a cinema in order to understand the response to a film that’s just being screened. It is a slight shock at first, but it’s also very clever . There’s a wonderful dream sequence with that unexpected twist with a glass (You’ll know what I mean when you see it) and some genuinely sweet moments peppered throughout the film.

And of course all those movie references and in-jokes  everywhere that only a real movie geek can spot. Some of them are more obvious than others, starting from the main character’s name Valentin, which is obviously a reference to silent movie star Valentino and his actual look which clearly reminds us of  Fairbanks from the The Mark of Zorro (incidentally he is also shown watching extracts from it later in the film).

However while I understand and applause the film for its understanding and knowledge of the 20s and early 30s, for some reason I don’t quite feel the same way about all those other “references” from pretty much all sorts of decades. The story itself for example takes from both of Singing in the rain (about a silent movie star struggling with the advent of talkies) to the  and A star is Born (about a movie star in decline), but there are echoes to those classic noir films from the 40s, from Citizen Kane itself (I’m referring to the breakfast montage sequence  transported to the “Artist” to achieve the exact same effect) and classic from 50s from directors like  Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock. Not to mention all those typical stock characters seen hundred of times in other movies (even the dog itself is lifted from the Thin Man).

It does make me wonder… When is an idea considered “non original” and when it’s a clever reference or an in-joke?

If this is a film about the silent era and the time between the 20s and 30s, why is it then referencing so many other later films? What is the point of using the soundtrack from Vertigo (a film made in 1958!!) for one of the final scenes? (In fact there’s been a controversy about this particular issue about the soundtrack of Vertigo).

I have to be honest with you, event though I know I might be very unpopular (everybody seems to love this film and it’s most likely going to be the big winner at the Oscar next February), and it’s maybe because I am so familiar with all the movies that came before and that “the Artist” is “borrowing” from , but once the novelty wore off, I found that the actual story itself quite simplistic and slightly unoriginal. And most important, did it really deserve to be 1 hour and 40 minutes long?

It all works the way you expect it to work, each character is exactly like you imagine they will be, and the ending is exactly like the poster advertises it to be. In the end I couldn’t help feeling that the “mute thing” was all just a big gimmick. And if  we take that out the film, what are we left with? Actually very little indeed. A story we’ve seen a hundred times, predictable at best, with some slapstick humour not particularly funny (yes, amusing a couple of times, but not more than that), some cute moments (the many takes during the filming of the dance sequence being possibly the best), but not that moving or tragic and finally a dog doing the same pretending-to-be-dead joke 9 times (My friend Alec counted them, so I blame him if it’s not actually 9, but you get my point).

So while I admire its technique, its knowledge and those few clever and inspired moments, I couldn’t help feeling that there was not enough to fill a whole 100-minutes film (In fact if it wanted to pay a real tribute to the silent era of film-making it should have been a lot shorter like all those movies were).

Is this really the best film of the year? Does it really deserve to be the Oscar winner of 2012? Will it really sustain many repeated viewings like all those classics it’s constantly borrowing from. I guess only time will tell but I thought it actually had very little to tell.

6.5/10

Les petits mouchoirs – Review

Les petits mouchoirs (Little White Lies) 2010 

Directed by Guillaume Canet. Starring François CluzetMarion CotillardJean Dujardin

When watching Carnet’s third film, you’ll be excused from drawing some obvious comparisons with the 1983 hit classic the Big Chill:  not only the story of a group of friends gathering together for a holiday and ending up taking their skeletons out of the closets is a fairly familiar territory, but also the way the film itself is handled, with that mixture of comedy and drama and a constant (and most of the times fairly random) soundtrack of old American songs playing in the background.

The film starts off with a spectacular piece of cinematic bravura: a one take wonder which serves as an introduction for the rest of the film (though I must confess it’s so perfectly well choreographed that actually makes you expect the big surprise that’s about to come). Unfortunately this perfectly well-timed sequence is a rather isolated example in an otherwise indulgent and over-long film. In fact, after the striking beginning it takes at least a good 30 minutes before the actual holiday (and the real film) starts. Thinking back at it, with hindsight, it would have been quite easy to cut all that part out and set it all up just during the holiday. It would have also brought the film down in length from those 154 minutes. Yes, the accident sequence was very good, but did we really need to see it ?

But aside from few indulgences, once the film actually gets going it is a real delight. There are some individual very funny moments (the one where two friends get stranded on a boat gets my top marks…) and generally speaking the inter-relationship between all the various characters is beautifully portrayed and very well observed.

Of course, the whole things couldn’t be more French and, seen from the eyes of a foreigner, all the so-called clichés that you would expect from these sort of people seem to be there: from the hysterical dialogue, to the wine drinking, the talk about sex and to the fact that they could all end up in each other’s bed… and just when you think you’ve seen it all, a man shows up with a baguette under his arm (really!).

However none of that takes anything away from the genuinely affecting drama that unfolds under your eyes.

And just like in “the big chill”, underneath the surface and all the laughs, there’s an impending sense of nostalgia that permeates the atmosphere.

All the performances are top-notch; so much so that they make real even some of the most far-fetched situations. These could be friends who spent most of their life knowing each other.

François Cluzet, resembling more and more Dustin Hoffman, gets some of the best lines: his storyline about a man who’s just been told by his best friend that he’s in love with him, is probably the most original and definitely the most entertaining. Everything else is pretty standard for this sort of “re-union” films and yet perfectly enjoyable and very engaging.

But while some of the characters work better than others, sadly it’s the women that are most two-dimensional (with the single exception of Marion Cotillard) to the point that more than an hour into the film I was still not quite sure about how many where actually there.

The film runs slightly out of steam towards the final act where the dialogue becomes more forced and a certain tendency to give every character a cathartic moment starts to creep in.

The tearful drawn-out ending to the notes of Nina Simone’s version of “My Way”, however moving, was probably a step too far and where subtlety really went out of the window.

On the whole it felt like a very personal film made by a director who should have been kept more on a leash by a more watchful producer. There’s absolutely no excuse for a film of this kind to be so long!

And yet, despite all its weaknesses I’m still giving it a thumb up. Would I watch it again? Definitely not. But I certainly did enjoy it the first time around.

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