24 February 2012

Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo

It’s one measure of the enduring power of Hollywood’s own mythology that one of the most striking Hollywood movies of recent years is actually a French production. The Artist is a movie about Hollywood, and it is of Hollywood, too, buying into the mythology wholeheartedly.

And yet Hollywood forced even Charlie Chaplin to stop making silent movies (though he continued to work in black-and-white). Maybe a filmmaker has to be outside “the community,” as Michel Hazanavicius is, in order to tell a story this way, and to tell this story might be even tougher for a hardcore Hollywood habitué.

Dog is in the details:
The filmmakers got everything right; they even resurrected Asta.
Dujardin with the astonishing Uggie.

If somebody like Stephen Spielberg or Ron Howard systematically evoked every classic from A Star Is Born to Sunset Boulevard to Singing in the Rain, he’d risk our scorn: would we say, “He’s done his homework!” or, “What a loving paean to the Golden Age”? Far more likely that we’d say, “Dang, he’s really piling on the clichés here!”

And if an actor–director such as Ben Stiller made The Artist, he’d almost certainly have played the lead; in turn we’d accuse him of mawkishness and self-aggrandizement. We would, too. We’re vicious that way, we audiences, and the dreaded “studio buzz” would be nastier still.

Brice, a bubble-headed man-child who doesn’t quite grasp that he’s not a California surfer — on account of he lives in Nice, ya know — was one of Dujardin’s splashiest early roles.

The Artist succeeds where an American picture might not, and for that reason, the picture deserves most of the award nominations it’s received. What’s striking to this audience is the shower of accolades on the film’s star, Jean Dujardin, previously known for extremely dopey comedies. Suddenly, Brice de Nice is on the verge of winning an Oscar. Pigs must be flying!

Yet Dujardin’s performance is stellar. He perfectly captures the physicality and self-mocking brio of Douglas Fairbanks, for example, and it’s here that his history with Hazanavicius really pays off: their most successful collaborations have been the spoofing spy-movie series OSS 117, in which Dujardin plays a James Bond type à la française. He’s almost a stereotypical leading man: tall, dark, handsome. But in the spy movies, Hazanavicius exploits our equally stereotypical suspicion (consider the way Darrell Hammond skewers the original Bond, Sean Connery) that a leading man is not in fact terribly smart: master spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is an oaf.

Hazanavicius’ Cairo, Nest of Spies united Dujardin with his Artist co-star, Bérénice Bejo. (She’s terrific in that picture, too.)
(She’s also Mme Hazanavicius.)

Even beyond that, Hazanavicius locates the correlation between what we see of a movie star’s smug self-regard and what we also see as the worst kind of French arrogance — which is itself another stereotype. The OSS 117 movies may not be high art, but they’re clever, and very funny.

Given this background, the leap to The Artist is more like a quick hop. This director and this actor know how to pick up on broad general tendencies and to make them significant in a particular context. We all have very clear received ideas about Hollywood, and Hazanavicius and Dujardin seize on those.

He is big! It’s the pictures that got small.

It’s no surprise then that The Artist scores as parody, but the movie’s serious scenes gain in poignancy because we’ve seen so much goofy exuberance, and we grieve for that spirit as Dujardin’s character falls on hard times. And when he dances — well! I’d like to see Kenneth Branagh beat that!

So, yeah, The Artist may win some big awards on Sunday night, and if it does, I’ll be pleased, not only in recognition of the excellence of the work, but in anticipation of the immense fun Hazanavicius and Dujardin will have for years to come, poking fun at their newfound stature.

Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont!
No, it’s Jean Dujardin and Missi Pyle.
I fondly remember her truly unearthly performance in Galaxy Quest.

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