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