Film review – The Artist

Silent movie actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin of OSS:117 fame) is at the top of his game, but in a dull marriage to a fellow Hollywoodland silent movie star. At the premiere of his latest film, he literally bumps into the unknown actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) in the admiring crowd. A few playful poses in front of the press later and she’s on the front page of the papers under the headline “Who’s That Girl?”. This chance publicity ensures she is later retained on George’s picture as a dancer, and we see a chaste attraction form between the two. But it’s time for a montage sequence, and Peppy attends auditions and works her way up the ladder. But while her star ascends, George Valentin’s is falling, a fading silent star in a new world of talking pictures.

The advent of movies with sound means George’s career is in danger of being silent forever. Cast off by his long-time producer (John Goodman – who else?) he has a nightmare of not being able to speak in a world of sound, one in which chorus girls laugh at his sudden emasculation. The threat to this once immortal star of the silver screen is hinted at in an ornament from his house, a cast of the three-monkey motif of the Buddhist Tendai sect – representing the wisdom commonly interpreted in the West as “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil” ??? but a more relevant interpretation here is from the old Japanese “Mizaru. Kikazaru. Iwazaru” which means (are you still with me at the back?) “Not see. Not hear. Not speak.” But, what’s that? Could there be redemption for George in the form of unconditional love? Well, whaddya know!

Writer and director Michel Hazanavicius has made a swell movie, right down to the period-style opening titles. It’s a tribute to the kind of old-school Hollywood romantic melodrama and dance numbers that used to play out with bombastic big-band soundtracks, and it’s all done with a nod, a wink and a good dose of jazz hands and sparkling teeth.

The jazz-classical soundtrack by Ludovic Bource underscores the film perfectly, telling us when to feel sad, tense, happy or just plain drunk. Guillaume Schiffman‘s black and white cinematography is luxuriant, with one scene using a mirrored table and a Dutch camera angle that is just incredible – a tip of the top hat towards German surrealist film-making of the period.

In another beautiful early scene, Peppy finds herself in George’s dressing room, his top hat and tails hanging on a stand. She slips her right arm through the same of the jacket, placing her hand as if it is his, lovingly on her own hip as she closes her eyes and daydreams of his embrace. It’s a shot I saw in the trailer but thought was a visual effects trick. No, it’s a just beautifully simple illusion, kinda like love. Ahh alright, alright, I’ll quit with the lovey dovey stuff. Look, there’s a dog in it, it’s amusing. Go see it for the dog, at least.

This is the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. So what if it’s predictable. Who needs modern toilet humour, when ya got class like this?

Cut. Print. That’s a wrap.

Thank you to the staff of Sushi Say, Willesden Green, for help with the Japanese translation, and not least to
Whogivesamonkeys, whose latest blog post put those Buddhist monkeys in my mind before the movie


Film review – The Woman in Black – A descent into the underworld

The British Library is currently showing an exhibition on Charles Dickens’ use of the supernatural in his novels, written at a time in Victorian-era Britain when seances were a parlour trick which later became a pseudo-science; that of trying to make contact with a spirit world. Decades after his death, in a time of great loss of life following the first world war, there was an intense will to believe in more than an afterlife – a belief that there was intersection between the worlds of the living and the dead where lost loved-ones could be found once more.

The Woman in Black is adapted from the novel written by Susan Hill in 1983, set in the post-Victorian Edwardian era. It is a source that has previously been adapted for stage and screen, with the latest directed by James Watkins (writer/director of Eden Lake) and starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Kepp (Radcliffe) is a lawyer widowed when his wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a now four-year-old son. Beset by debts, he is instructed by a senior member of the firm to prove his commitment to further employment by taking on a probate case  – that of Mrs Alice Drablow, the deceased owner of the now deserted Eel Marsh House.

The house is located on an island accessible only by a causeway submerged under each sea tide. Kipps must sort through the many papers within the house to close the case and return to his infant son within the week as planned. But there is a malevolent presence there – the apparition of a woman dressed in black, the sighting of which coincides with terrible events in the nearby village.

Eel Marsh House represents Kipp’s personal hell, a projection of his psyche, mangled and distorted through grief. Like the Greek hero Orpheus who made a descent into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from the grip of Hades, Kipps ignores the warning signs and is compelled to visit the house again and again in a quest to subconsciously reconcile the loss of his beloved wife, seen in his imagination as a spectral figure dressed in white. I need not point out the symbolism of this.

Watkins directs an enjoyable horror film worthy of the resurrected Hammer brand. There is an increasing assault of jumpy moments made good by sound design and editing, but that’s all that is on offer. There is nothing to really chill you to the rattling bones of your subconscious. Radcliffe is still to green to be playing a role of this sort, and he lacks conviction when delivering the speech of a widower. The end of the story has been altered from the novel in such a way that I think makes for a decidedly less jarring ending. But perhaps you’ll feel different.

I’ll leave you with this thought. In the film, The Empire Strikes Back, the young Luke Skywalker is being trained to face his own dark side, and must leave the safety of his teacher, Master Yoda, to descend into a dark cave that he is told is “strong with the dark side of The Force”.

“What’s in there?” he asks.

“Only what you take with you,” is the reply.

Kipp’s cave is Eel Marsh House. Yours is the darkness of the cinema. Don’t have nightmares, now.