It is no longer possible to recreate a black and white silent film in any pure sense. We can imitate the physical appearance of the form but not the audience’s enjoyment of watching it without any experience of screen sound, where silence was completely unnoticed. Filmmakers cannot simply ignore the finely tuned responses of the audience some 80 years later with their instinctive reading of sound and image. Any unnatural silence from the real world will now ‘shout’ out as a powerful presence by its absence, an obvious stylistic device, drawing attention to its artificiality. Nobody understands this more than Michel Hazanavicius, whose knowing homage to the silent era of Twenties Hollywood is made in the period style but patently from today’s perspective, as much a film about sound as it is silence. There is a tacit acknowledgement, amongst the other silences, of a lost innocence that Rudolf Arnheim famously lamented upon the arrival of the talkies as an irretrievable loss of an art form.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, which we take as a play upon Rudolph Valentino, whom his appearance resembles. It was 1927, the year that Warner Bros changed cinema forever with the release of the Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film with synchronised dialogue. We find Valentin at the height of his fame, working the audience for all his worth, following the successful premiere of his new movie. Its end forms the beginning of our film and the jokes begin with a wonderfully simple scene-setter. With a gentle swipe at Hollywood’s ideological positioning, a ruthless Russian tortures Valentin’s character with a fantastically contrived electronic conductor. It was of a kind typical of the late silent era’s surreal imagination gone wild, free of the greater burden of reality that sound would impose. Of course, Valentin does not ‘talk’ under pressure, he remains resolutely ‘silent’ as he would in the movies, Charlie Chaplin style, continuing to make silent features after the era had passed.
It was also the year that gave us Clara Bow’s iconic performance in Clarence G. Badger’s ironically titled ‘It’, an euphemism for sex that launched her as the first ‘It Girl’, the ultimate flapper, an acceptable face of sex for mainstream entertainment. Bow was an early victim of the talkies, her broad Brooklyn accent contradicting her screen persona, but she opened the door for a new breed of actress who launched an early form of ‘girl power’, ultimately manifesting itself in the screwball comedies, a battle of the sexes taking place on celluloid. Bérénice Bejo, the off-screen wife of Hazanavicius, plays Peppy Miller in this mode, a Bow successor, oozing sex appeal but less flirtatious with the camera, more suited to the talkies.
This is a set-up for a charming love affair with more sexual chemistry than the screen can safely contain but never consummated. Valentin takes Peppy under his wing only for his protégée to emerge as a talkies superstar and for his career to nose dive, ‘A Star is Born’ style. Watch out for one crucial scene that marks the turning point in their fortunes and the film’s tone as it switches from silent comedy to tragedy. A huge film set recreation of a staircase in the manner of Jacques Tati serves as the backdrop to the couple passing at the mid-point with Peggy going upwards and Valentin crossing in the opposite direction.
Sound does occasionally break the silence but with sufficient rarity to retain the surprise and always for key moments of telling humour. Hazanavicius superbly captures Valentin’s first awareness of the pending change with the sudden sound of everyday objects that startles him and us alike before evolving into full blown thunderclaps. His audible ‘thank you’ in a thick French accident is all that is necessary to mark that decisive moment when cinema ceased to be international, when actors and the movies could no longer move freely across borders.
Peppy’s breakout film is called the Guardian Angel, which proves to be as symbolic as everything else. Reversing roles, Peppy protects Valentin from a distance, challenges his male pride and, going against the grain of Hollywood conventions, provides him with an unlikely rousing comeback. Saving the best scene until last, they come together in a stunning dance routine that takes us to Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and, of course, Singin’ in the Rain, itself a brilliant parody of Hollywood’s transition from silents to talkies. Their diegetic triumph becomes a triumphant close for the movie leaving us with an unexpected sense of euphoria.
Hazanavicius looks back to the past and creates something new and fresh. Dujardin deservedly bagged the best actors prize at Cannes for his beautifully judged performance, combining the star persona, elegance and vanity of the early movie star to perfection. Bejo is equally convincing as Peppy, and John Goodman chips in with an amusing portrayal of the obligatory scowling studio boss. Oh, and a quick mention for Asta the dog, whose scene-stealing antics, complete with a Rover style rescue, are as charming as anything on view.motilium costomotilium buy onlinefluoxetine classificationfluoxetine tablets 20mgfluoxetine 20 mg tabletsfluoxetine 10 mg side effects
A delightful Cannes breakout film, which, like the silents of the past, can once again cross borders without language limitations.