Against all possible odds, the fourth edition of the Panorama of European Film has managed to attract a sizeable audience with sold-out screenings, commencing in a week when all cultural activities in the nation have been suspended in the wake of last week’s violence against Tahrir demonstrators.
Misr International Films’ week-long fest did not have the luxury of pulling the plug on their activities without losing money. By the time the Egyptian police stared to wage its unofficial war on protesters, the Panorama had already invited its guests and paid for the hefty screening rights of this year’s expanded film selection. Cancelling the fest would’ve been much more costly than drawing a smaller audience.
Daily News Egypt began running previews of the films before the fest kicked off. Our coverage continued after Nov. 18 when it was confirmed to us that the Panorama will indeed begin on time. The typical questions I was confronted with during such time of turmoil are: Does anyone care to read about movies at this time? Is it appropriate?
I went to see French bittersweet comedy “The Artist” — one of the highlights of the Panorama — hoping to find some answers. But I didn’t, and it didn’t matter. Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to pre-sound era Hollywood is a pure escapist fare; a boisterous, gorgeously looking, deeply uplifting picture so full of life; an antidote to all the killings and destruction that swept Cairo’s most iconic square last week.
We go to the movies to escape, but we also seek stories for their life-affirming humanity, for their ability to grant us an assurance impossible to find in the real world.
Hazanavicius’s silent black and white film was the surprise last addition to the Cannes official competition this year. Known for his hugely successful James Bond spoofs “OSS 117,” Hazanavicius’s films do not scream art-house and festival glory. Yet the critical and popular reactions were equally ecstatic, with even the most hard-nosed critics succumbing to the film’s charm.
The momentum it gathered continued after Cannes, reaching fever pitch this month with its US premiere. “The Artist” is now hotly tipped to snatch next year’s Best Picture Oscar, becoming the first French film in history to receive this honor.
The film opens in 1927, a few months before the first full-length talking picture “The Jazz Singer” is released. Popular comedian Jean Dujardin of “Brice de Nice” and “OSS 117” fame is George Valentin, one of Hollywood’s biggest silent film stars. With his slick hair, pencil-thin moustache and the over-confident grin that never leaves his face, Valentin is hybrid of Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks and, in the later phases of the story, John Gilbert.
His wild antics are the bread and butter gossip publications feed on. The fame and glory Valentin enjoys in abundance is met by indifference from his bored, impassive wife (Penelope Ann Miller).
A chance encounter with ardent fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who starred alongside Dujardin in the first “OSS 117” film) offers him a distraction from his icy domestic life. Her vivacious, bubbly face, gleeful eyes and graceful disposition attracts his attention. A picture taken of the young admirer with Valentin makes headlines, and she uses it to get her way into the movie industry.
The pair cross paths again when Peppy is cast an extra in Velentin’s latest espionage drama, and the two immediately fall for each other.
The brief prospect of a new romance is soon overshadowed by the career threat represented by the talkies’ overriding sweep. Too proud to adapt to the change in tides and make the leap to sound, Valentin rebuffs the warnings of his studio boss (John Goodman) and decides to go against the grain. He finances his new picture, a swashbuckling, action-adventure, from his own pocket as major studios close their silent divisions.
His film, predictably, flops, while the market crash adds further to his woes, causing him to file for bankruptcy. In a span of months, Valentin becomes a has-been. The decline of Valentin’s fortunes simultaneously occurs as Peppy, who’s been steadily climbing up the Hollywood ladder, is transformed overnight into America’s sweetheart.
From the point onward, the film takes a darker turn as Valentin fails to escape the fading glories of his past.
“The Artist’s” critics have accused it of being nothing more than a pastiche of silent cinema, and their point does possess some validations. Silent cinema was distinguished for its stunning technical innovations, unbridled ambition and epic vision, elements that are absent in this film. A demonstration of silent cinema’s forgotten superiority is not what “The Artist” intends to be though. Hazanavicius reverently uses silent film as a medium to tell his story, introducing the majority of his audience to a cinema they’ve never experienced before.
All classic films that have tackled silent cinema — “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Sunset Blvd.” — were sound pictures. “The Artist” is the first silent film about silent cinema, shot in 22 frames per second with a boxy 1:33 aspect ratio. For viewers unfamiliar with the aesthetics of silent film, “The Artist” is a revelation. For seasoned film lovers growing up with the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, the historical epics of Cecil B. DeMille and the edgy melodramas of Josef von Sternberg, the result is deeply nostalgic and somewhat doleful.
Silent Hollywood was the world’s biggest dream factory. While the French, Germans and especially the Scandinavians presented a serious, alternative cinema reflecting both the reality of the time and their distinct cultural narratives, Hollywood was intently focused on entertainment of every shape and size. Even the darkest, most daring and most sophisticated American narratives of D.W. Griffith (“Intolerance”), Erich von Stroheim (“Greed”) and especially King Vidor (“The Crowd”) were simple and straightforward in essence. And it’s this simplicity, this directness that “The Artist” not only captures so vividly but champions and celebrates.
Like many similar tales of cinema, “The Artist” is essentially a reworking of “A Star is Born,” but the story never feels tired or conventional thanks to engaging performances of the cast which also includes James Cromwell as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur and his adorable Jack Russell companion.
Dujardin — who rightfully received the best actor award in Cannes — shows incredible depth and subtlety, previously glimpsed in Guillaume Canet’s “Les petits mouchoirs” (2010). The dashing Velantin represents everything we loved about silent cinema: the gushing romanticism, striking idealism and stirring innocence. His romance with Peppy is genuine and pure, a product of cynicism-free era.
Words and sound effects are unwelcome interlopers always kept at bay in this world. Hazanavicius lets the image do all the talking, and their indelible communicative power proves to be louder than words.
The film is chockfull of arresting imageries: the later studio encounter between Valentin and Peppy, him standing on the bottom of the stairs, anticipating his downfall, and her resting on the top, climbing the road of stardom; a destitute Valentin, with a glass of whisky in hand, watching footage of his old films on a small projector in a dimly-lit room as a faint flicker of light penetrates the darkness, acting as a reminder of an irretrievable life that has fallen out of his grasps; and of course the first instance when sound is used (the details of which I shall not disclose).
Then there are the tap-dancing dance scenes whose elegance, magnetism and poise recall Astaire and Rogers in their prime. Each dance signifies a different stage in the couple’s relationship: A sweet flirtation, a declaration of love and a happy reconciliation. Each dance is brilliantly dexterous in execution; each dance is a beauty to behold.
Production values are dazzling. The lush, luminous cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman, the classy, handsome customs by Mark Bridges, the entrancing art direction of Gregory S. Hooper. Most imperative of all, the delightful score by Ludovic Bource, the sole source of real sound in the film, that perfectly conveys the various emotional progressions of the story unobtrusively.
I left “The Artist” with conflicting feelings of rapture and longing, an embracing joy of witnessing this immersive experience and a yearning for an imaginary place and time I spent a considerable part of my life dwelling in. Sound did not turn to be the merciless executioner of quality cinema many have feared it to be and several legendary filmmakers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch who started off in silent cinema found enormous success in the sound era.
But in this insufferably noisy world of ours, and in modern mainstream cinema where sound is gluttonously abused every passing moment, a short hushed respite feels like a miracle, conjured by the ever-present spirits of the movie gods.
The fourth Panorama of the European Film concludes on Tuesday, Nov. 29. For more information, visit: http://www.misrinternationalfilms.com/inner.aspx?SID=22&LangID=1
Jean Dujardin and “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius behind the scenes.