Glad tidings, of coming holiday gifts:
“I won’t talk!” silently mouths an actor in the silent movie being made inside The Artist, a film that is itself almost entirely silent in speech. Soon after, a studio sign says: Please Be Silent. But you will be hearing the humming sound of your own thoughts, along with laughs, as you submit happily to Michel Hazanavicius’s film.
Like the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, this strange new film is in love with movie love. The French director, whose clever but corny Bond parody OSS 117 did not prepare me for this, has made a silky valentine to silent Hollywood. Come Oscar time, the buzzing hive of modern Hollywood may respond with a prize or two (I personally nominate the lead actor). This black-and-white film has an impeccable spirit of devotion to old show biz and to our imagination of what it once was. It doesn’t have to be wildly funny or perfectly plotted to sustain its power of artful silence (words are heard only near the end, and the simple story requires few on-screen dialogue cards).
The ace card is the casting of Jean Dujardin as American star George Valentin, whose popularity withers as sound comes in. His old-style Brilliantine hair and “pencil moustache” are often braced by a huge grin. He looks terrific in costumes or, even better, a three-piece suit. He loves life, and movies, and women, and mirrors, and his dog Jack, a virtual clone of Asta in the Thin Man series (he is played by three Jack Russell terriers: Uggie, Dash, and Dude). As jaunty George grins, poses, and wanders, his sad wife droops like a potted palm (Penelope Ann Miller had more fun as Edna Purviance, Charlie’s favorite costar, in 1992’s Chaplin).
George’s bounding gusto recalls Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the Hollywood “king” (before Clark Gable) who aged quickly after sound came in. He looks like the forgotten ’30s star Warren William, and he soulfully echoes John Gilbert, another major moustache and a gifted actor who was ruined less by talk than the control mania of the Mayer-Thalberg regime at MGM. Despite the devoted support of Greta Garbo, Gilbert became a truly painful figure, and Hazanavicius was smart not to overdo the comparison. Resisting sound, George produces a silent film (a bomb), and then sulks and drinks, gives up the mansion, auctions his treasures, even sadly fires his devoted servant (James Cromwell, almost as loyal as the dog Jack). Through it all, Dujardin has great dignity, is hugely likeable, and pulls off touches of comic poignancy not far from Chaplin’s.
As Peppy Miller, who grabs the golden ring of sound and whose love for George stalls for a while in wistful friendship, Bérénice Bejo is certainly committed (in life she is Hazanavicius’s partner). She sure is peppy, though female stars of the era had more flesh; the skinny gals rose up later, with Ida Lupino, Lauren Bacall, and Veronica Lake. Bejo, who looks like a prettier Carol Burnett, is a plot device to bring on the smiles, kisses, and meet-cutes. She is what that era would have called “swell.”
Dujardin’s true costar is the immaculate design, the old devices (spinning headlines, dissolves, wipe-cuts, well-dressed crowds), the not-too-computerized vistas of classic L.A. — above all, the lovely tonalities of gray and silver, which are mostly quite close to what old movies looked like. The actors (Cromwell, Miller, Ed Lauter, Malcolm McDowell, and, as the studio boss, John Goodman) fold into the atmosphere like pale, mute ghosts of themselves. The film murmurs delicate echoes of A Star Is Born and silent comedies and that great, joyful lie about the coming of sound, Singin’ in the Rain. You don’t need to be a buff to feel the pleasure.
Guillaume Schiffman’s photography rivals Gordon Willis’s for Zelig, Woody Allen’s tricky comedy about ’20s celebrity mania. The wittiest touch is that George so loves his silent-but-virile world of movie heroics that he seems to think and dream in silence. In a nightmare, he hears simple bathroom devices making noises, like subversive imps. Talk threatens his complacently happy posturing as a star, though he is never a dumb ditz like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. (But is George really an artist? His films seem pretty bad.) The retro clichés are not stale — as Hazanavicius has said, the “grammar of the movie is to play with clichés, and the clichés protect each other.”
In the later, 1932 segment of the film, the official portrait of President Calvin Coolidge in a public building is several years too late, and the use of yearning music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo is 26 years too early (and rather impudent). But that pilferage works surprisingly well and is clearly Hazanavicius’s tribute to a greater artist. Less witty than Zelig, less rich in Depression emotion than Pennies from Heaven, less stunningly stylized than Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, this oddball charmer is still a triumph, marching blithely to its own, silent drummer. Dujardin, so much more than a nostalgia moustache, gives it the heart of a star.
If you want a talkie — All Talking! All Snapping! All Bitching! — the motor mouth is Carnage. The mouth comes with a good body, for no one in the past 20 years has made movies more lucidly designed or crisply controlled than has Roman Polanski. Consider Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Oliver Twist, and The Ghost Writer. This is hardly surprising, for back in 1973 Polanski directed what may be the most handsomely packaged narrative film of the modern era, Chinatown.
Carnage, another fine-looking job, is an effectively filmed play. Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning drama The God of Carnage is in go-for-the-jugular, theatrical debt to Edward Albee and his two-couple spin of squirming and laceration, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yep, the Woolf is at the door again. The revelation, by now fairly redundant, is that every sophisticated adult has a child inside, screaming to get out and make a mess.
Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) come to the tasteful Brooklyn flat of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) to apologize for their son having injured the other couple’s boy in a rage (the kids are barely seen; one is played by Polanski’s son, Elvis). It doesn’t take long for nervous but gracious maturity to quiver, crack, and fly apart in verbal ambushes, lubricated by deluxe scotch. Proud adulthood, symbolized by Penelope’s precise stacking of her art books, sinks into recrimination and gender hostility.
The acting marathon is adroitly blocked and paced by Polanski and impeccably shot by Pawel Edelman. We can relish the mommy-lady control wires of Foster as she turns into a crass shrieker; the Euro-hauteur of Waltz (the Nazi marvel of Inglourious Basterds) as he spears everyone with sly zings — when he’s not on his cell phone, compulsively arranging a corporate cover up; the blunt, amiable guyness of Reilly, who finds his meatball gravity in the line “They don’t give a shit!” Above all, the flaking composure of Winslet as she disintegrates into disgust and ballistic vomit (funny, if you remember her surviving Titanic).
This is marginal Polanski from a minor play, yet it has an infallible equilibrium of actors. The verbal and emotional pinballing is worthy of directors Mike Nichols and Robert Altman in high form. The sense of a vain, shallow society exposing its brittle bones is fairly comical, though finally less Virginia Woolf than Who’s Afraid of Neil Simon? This is your chance to witness the drowning of a cell phone as a symbolic castration, and a hissy fit of hysteria caused by the violent emptying of a purse. Such vulnerable dopes, such silly seriousness.
Carnage opens January 13 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinema.
Reviewed in the movie capsules: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Sitter, and Young Adult.