The accumulation of statuettes notwithstanding, “The Artist” is not the best picture of the year. It’s charming and trivial, beautifully crafted and utterly winning, all in a distinctively French way. A black-and-white, mostly silent homage to the glory of filmmaking and the mystery of love, this film is a soufflé made of humble ingredients (lopsided grins, a $15 million budget) that somehow rises to delight. Given the age and sentimentality of your average Oscar voter, this bit of good Gallic cooking certainly could win the big prize – but that would be silly.
This season, the big event in Hollywood seems to be the homage smackdown, pitting “The Artist” against Martin Scorsese’s beloved, bloated “Hugo,” while Woody Allen’s grotesquely uninteresting “Midnight in Paris” tugs at our trouser cuffs for attention it doesn’t deserve. In this peculiar trio, “The Artist” surely is the winner.
“Hugo,” like all Scorsese pictures, has merit: I found the large-scale, mechanical gearworks fascinating, and the headlong camera moves divine. Some people I respect even liked the story, though I can’t imagine why. Give Scorsese points for still experimenting at age 69. But “Hugo” fails in precisely the way that “The Artist” succeeds: the attempt to express love of cinema through the medium itself. Scorsese chose to work in computer-assisted 3-D for a film honoring Georges Méliès, an artisan born in 1861. In the end, that odd choice only reminds us, yet again, that the gimmick of 3-D has yet to meet its master. “The Artist,” by contrast, works as a silent film, with exuberantly expressive acting, gorgeous cinematography, and an insistently seductive musical score. When this movie goes for cheap effects, as in its rare deployments of live sound, the trickery thrills.
"Midnight in Paris," by contrast, is awful in two ways: It presents Paris as a Disneyland for wealthy know-nothings, a geography of iconic sights, expensive restaurants, and luxury hotels with no discernible connection to anything money can’t buy. And it indulges in a dreary fantasy of meeting the accomplished expatriates who once congregated in a very different Paris: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, and so on. Sure, it’s fun to see an actor playing Dali — but, sheesh, it’s been 37 years since E.L. Doctorow perfected this prank. Enough, already.
Let’s honor “The Artist” for what it is: a sweet, sad, funny, romantic, ravishingly entertaining little throw-away concocted for movie nuts. Director Michel Hazanavicius, a Frenchman whose thrilling surname may be Lithuanian in origin, specializes in bright, pointed comedy seen through a nostalgic lens – more on his “OSS 117” pictures in a moment. His “Artist” is a breakthrough.
Taking on a moderately serious theme – a star of silents crushed by the talkies – Hazanavicius relies on the craft of movie-making itself to initiate contemporary audiences into something like the experience of early cinema. “Hugo” too often feels like a ponderous film-school study; Hazanavicius plays the old-timey stuff for fun. The many references to film lore in “The Artist” – my favorite is a dog who channels the Thin Man’s Asta – will amuse the film buffs who should be the core audience of this odd little film.
Hazanavicius has come a long way since the two “OSS 117” films that established his commercial reputation in France: “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.” Both are belated parodies of James Bond films, more on which later. Both movies showcase Jean Dujardin – who went on to star in “The Artist” – as a ridiculously self-satisfied idiot of a spy, a maladroit bumbler, an ignorant racist, sexist chauvin who’s no damn good at espionage and stands for everything that’s wrong with France. Which is to say that Dujardin is delightful, a lithe, leering comic talent deserving comparison with the Peter Sellers of the “Pink Panther” era. (Fortunately for world civilization, both OSS 117 films are available on Netflix.)
America needs to discover OSS 117: The two-movie series grossed just $393,000 in U.S. theatres. Start in reverse order, with the better film: “Lost in Rio.” This joyously tasteless scamper sets super-spy OSS 117 against Nazis trying to establish a Fifth Reich in Brazil. The script is filled with gags that work; my favorite may be the Nazi rendition of “Girl From Ipanema,” which sees Mel Brooks and raises him. The direction, with its arty visual explorations of 1960s nostalgia – split screens and purple go-go boots – hint at the impulses behind the more sophisticated achievements of “The Artist.”
Like “OSS 117,” “Johnny English” is a flamboyantly redundant parody of a series of bloated films that themselves parody Ian Fleming’s espionage thrillers. “Johnny English Reborn” continues a comic tradition begun in 1964 with “Agent 8 3/4" and “Carry On Spying,” and carried on since by films including the 1967 version of “Casino Royale” (with Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Ursula Andress, among others, all playing Agent 007); “The Spy with a Cold Nose,” directed by Daniel Petrie and starring Laurence Harvey; “Spy Hard,” featuring Leslie Nielsen as Agent WD-40; and Mike Myers’ fart-filled, occasionally amusing “Austin Powers” flicks. Not to mention Atkinson’s 2003 “Johnny English,” the prequel to ”Reborn.” Can there possibly be any comedic gold left to be -fingered here? Of course there is. But I digress.
The plot of Hazanavicius’ “Lost in Rio” has the 1960s-era Nazis in Brazil blackmailing French intelligence with a list naming French collaborators during WWII. When agent OSS 117 is assigned to fly down to Rio to ransom it, our hero smugly suggests to his controller that the list couldn’t be very long. The film’s central joke is that he’s dead wrong about that: France isn’t what our hero thinks it is.
French national shame calls to mind “Sarah’s Key,” which I saw last year in a fourteen-hankie, all-atrocity double feature with “The Names of Love.” Two fine films, each worth seeing, but – trust me – best seen together.
At the center of “Sarah’s Key,” an intricate, compelling tale of discovery, responsibility, and grief, is a 1942 incident that Jacques Chirac, as president of France, later publicly described as criminal madness… black hours [that] will stain our history for ever. While subject to Nazi occupation, French civil authorities gathered up 13,152 Parisian Jews, including 4,051 children, detained them amid appalling conditions in a bicycle-racing stadium called the Vélodrome d’Hiver, and eventually shipped them off in cattle cars to Auschwitz and death. Mention of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, as it’s called, is awkward for the French, who rightly enjoy their honorable Résistance heritage but are sorry now that the depth of their collaboration with the Nazis is widely known. In this, the French are like all thinking people: mortified not to be better than we actually are.
“Sarah’s Key” stars the endlessly fascinating, infinitely vulnerable Kristen Scott Thomas, playing a journalist uncovering an ugly story in which she’s unexpectedly personally involved. Along the way, we get such a visceral sense of the Holocaust – the filth of it – that we leave the theatre feeling we’ve begun to understand the incomprehensible. And believe it or not, this film tells its disturbing tale so elegantly, with such tension and suspense, that it’s almost enjoyable, and certainly worth seeing at your first opportunity.
“The Names of Love,” the second part of my impromptu double feature, takes a rather different approach to a related issue. The time is today, the setting, Paris. We have a guy and a girl. Arthur is a French Jew of Greek origin, raised in a family enamored of technology and terrified of feeling for reasons that only gradually become clear. A disease-control scientist, he works with dead birds. Bahia, love child of a radical French hippie and a working-class Algerian immigrant, is determined to convert men she regards as fascist to her progressive way of thinking by making beautiful love with them.
Such attention as this peculiar comedy got in the U.S. focused on titillation, particularly a scene in which Bahia leaves her apartment and enters the subway having forgotten to put on any clothes. In fact we do spend lots of time during this movie admiring Sara Forestier’s naked form. But what the publicists didn’t tell you – be warned: this will spoil an important surprise – is that the Bahia character was sexually abused as a child, which dramatically alters the meaning of her actions. She is damaged, much as Arthur is damaged by events in his family’s history. The two are soulmates who fall in love, which is cute. But they also serve as fierce emblems of all the French citizens and residents marginalized in their own land because they trace their origins to other countries.
“The Names of Love” is an extraordinary film: It delivers as a light, frothy, romantic comedy. It brings tears to your eyes. And it brings home a surprisingly powerful political message. Seen immediately after “Sarah’s Key,” it leaves the moviegoer awestruck by the range and vigor of French cinema, irritated and disgusted by familiar human behaviors, and glad to be alive.
If you haven’t yet seen “The Artist,” don’t read on. Another spoiler looms.
The “Artist” eventually explains why George Valentin won’t do talkies: He’s French. Taken at face value, that explanation seems weak: After all, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, and for that matter Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, and many other actors with European accents enjoyed spectacular careers in Hollywood talkies.
I suspect that “The Artist” is as much about Michel Hazanavicius’ vision of France as it is about the movies. Much like Arthur in “The Names of Love,” the director is a Frenchman descended from recent Jewish immigrants. How telling that he chose silence as the means to attract audiences to his vision, and how poignant that “The Artist” competes for Oscars not in the foreign-film category, but as an American movie.
Just as OSS 117 personifies the proud ignorance of France, Valentin embodies her lost glory. Once a great star, he loses everything when the world changes around him and he – proudly – fails to make the transition. The film’s happy ending, such as it is, depends on the kindness of the new American star – and while Valentin shows how well he can dance, he still remains mute.
So it is with France, we infer. Except during the brief empires of Charlemagne (a German) and Napoleon (a Corsican), France has been obliged to revel in its glories within limits set by powerful neighbors: England, Germany, and Spain, and more recently, Russia, the U.S., and China. Even Vercingetorix ultimately submitted to Rome. Today, Sarkozy submits to Merkel. The characteristic pride of France seems always in tension with the humiliations of constraint, the subjection to some larger system. (The theme of lost glory is not uniquely French, to be sure: A gag in “Johnny English Reborn” shows the lobby of MI-7, with signage reading Toshiba British Intelligence.)
France justly can claim essential contributions to the invention and development of cinema, as well as a tradition of excellence in film-making that certainly rivals America’s. But the bottom line is that Hollywood is in the U.S. The big audiences, the big money, and of course the Oscars are bestowed mainly upon American movies.
Both “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris” are set in the City of Light, but both films are utterly American. “The Artist” masquerades as an American movie; deep down it is French.
So Hazanavicius, like Valentin, silenced his French voice to succeed in the Hollywood big time. He certainly deserves success. On second thought, maybe the Oscar goes to “The Artist” after all.