A belated Happy New Year to everyone visiting this blog, and thanks very much for all your support. I intend to update more this year, hopefully at least once a week, so watch this space! This will mean keeping my postings shorter, as I have been promising for ages… though I may relapse into long-windedness when I write about one of my favourite actors or directors. Anyway, up to now I haven’t written about any new releases on this blog, as I’m concentrating on films from the past, but in the last week I’ve seen two acclaimed new films which are about classic movie-making, The Artist and My Week with Marilyn, so I thought it would make a change to write something about each of them.
I liked both, especially The Artist, which feels almost like a film made for me personally – though I know many others feel this too. For one thing, it is a loving homage to films made between 1929 and 1932, a period covering the death of silent films and the birth of pre-Code talkies, which I have been discovering over the last couple of years. (The hero, played by Jean Dujardin, looks uncannily like John Barrymore, one of my favourite actors, in some of his swashbuckling roles, especially when he turns his head and is glimpsed in profile.) For another, the plot is yet another version of A Star Is Born, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the past year watching and writing about various versions of this endlessly reworked story.
The film is shot in black and white and almost all of it is silent, except for the music on the soundtrack, beautifully re-creating the vanished world of 1920s Hollywood. Actor George Valentin (Dujardin) and his devoted pet dog star in a succession of swashbuckling hits, but it all abruptly comes to an end when talkies are introduced in 1929 – just as it did for many actors in real life. George’s French accent means he will not be wanted for talking pictures, and he must make way for newer stars like the beautiful extra whom he briefly flirted with and encouraged, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, whose vibrant, dazzling screen personality appears to be modelled on Clara Bow). There is a painful scene where George overhears Peppy giving an interview in a restaurant, gloating innocently over the triumph of her youth and beauty and how the old must give way to the young – and he gets up from his table to tell her sarcastically that he is doing just that. “I give way to you.”
In all the versions of A Star Is Born which I’ve seen, the star on the wane hits the booze while his young replacement rises to fame. George does just the same in this film, with haunting scenes of him alone in his untidy flat, surrounded by empty bottles. However, the difference in this film is that he only starts drinking after his career is already ruined, drowning his sorrows rather than creating them. For all its apparently sweet and frothy surface, this film possibly has a bleaker message than Wellman and Cukor’s versions, because it shows that you don’t have to be a drunk, or to do anything wrong, to find yourself replaced by a younger generation. Time, and the relentless advance of technology, are enough. I’ve read some reviews of this movie which have claimed that its drama is shallow and there is no subtext, but anyone working in a dying industry would surely disagree.
However, despite and around this bleak core, the film is great fun to watch. Guillaume Schiffman’s black-and-white camerawork is endlessly inventive, with wonderful scenes like the one where Peppy’s legs are seen dancing behind a screen while her face is hidden, and the pastiche scenes from silent films, such as George fighting duels, or sinking into quicksand (all too symbolic) are beautifully done.
Above all, George’s dog gives an astonishing, comic and scene-stealing performance, often acting out what his master is feeling. There’s an interesting review of the film by Anne-Katrin Titze at Eye For Film where she says: “I asked Hazanavicius at the press conference, if he felt he didn’t have enough challenges making a silent film in black and white and had to add a rambunctious dog to half of the scenes. He answered that he saw George and the dog (Uggy is his real name) as “one character with two bodies”.”
All in all, I’d definitely recommend this film to anyone interested in 1920s and 30s cinema, and I’m hoping it will get some Oscar nominations, which seems highly likely.