And here, at least (at last), is a film that is proud enough of its superficial intentions to elevate them to the status of filmic playground, to respect them and put as much gasping talent into them at all angles as humanly possible. If The King’s Speech was confused, The Artist knows exactly what it is: a good ol’ fashioned time at the movies. And it’s happy to be one for its mercilessly peppy running length.
But it’s not enough to just be an amusement … it has to be a well-made amusement, and if this film’s lack of substance belies one thing, it is that it is extremely well made. And unlike The King’s Speech, it’s willing to show off its goods at every turn. The film has a story about silent film star George Valentin (a hound-dog Jean Dujardin) coping with the newly-christened world of sound film and figuring out how to survive within. But the “goods”, so to speak, are all style and filmmaking pizzaz placed on top of this narrative base in thick slathers. This is a film where the sauce seals the deal, not the admittedly slim base. It’s almost tempting to call it a gimmick (by “it”, I mean the fact that this is a silent film in itself), if it weren’t so woven into the film’s DNA at every level. Make no mistake, this movie knows silent film well – the era is recreated wholesale, with no obvious camera movements or composition elements lifted from future times (fitting, but not surprising, considering filmmaker Michael Hazanavicius has his roots in genre-parodies in the delectable OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies and its, I’m told, less well-studied sequel).
To this extent, the joys are within an inch of bottomless. On the screen, we have Dujardin’s marvelously expressive face and the equally mesmerizing Berenice Bejo as the other half of the film’s central romance, and veterans like John Goodman and James Cromwell stealing scenes left and right as they get to let their hair down a little. And all around them … where do I begin. Hazanavicius’ direction nails the mix of the wide-eyed, piercing close-ups and off-kilter, slap-dash camera marathons of the late ’20s, giving the film both personal heart and energetic verve. The composition work, and especially the lighting, recall the artificially enhanced non-naturalism prominent at the time, and as a bonus they approximate a pinch of depth about the way life and stagecraft performance bleed into each other.
Several scenes are masterful: a suspenseful late-game piece that allows Hazanavicius to pay homage to another chief silent film invention, Soviet-style montage, and two sequences where we hear sound, one that sees Valentin lost in the horrors of a sound-world and unable to cope, and one at the end that makes us feel the living, breathing sweat of dance. They’re fluff, but they revel in it. It’s not really a time-capsule film, as many would have us think, and the chance of improved nuance upon repeat viewings is unlikely. But if the film doesn’t have one damn thing to say about the human condition, that’s because it’s busy having a hell of a time saying not one damn thing.
The King’s Speech
The King’s Speech tries so desperately to overthrow its middlebrow core by turning its central story into a conscious trifle it’s almost easy to excuse it for the fact that, for different reasons, it all amounts to a trifle, and not a particularly inspired one at that. This story of King George VI on the eve of WW II and too many tepid wealthy-person interpersonal demons and vague gestures to class consciousness to count, the film is largely saved by two things. First, it has the semi-inspired nerve to turn the regal waxworks show into a living, breathing buddy comedy between King George, who has a rather serious case of the frights when speaking on stage (complemented by his rather pronounced vocal ticks), and Lionel Logue, a scrappy, middle-class vocal instructor hired to suit up King George’s voice in his finest duds so that he can, you know, be King. Secondly, those buddies are played by Colin Firth (George VI) and Geoffrey Rush (Logue), who wring more than a few joys small and large out of their stuffy indifference to each other.
Okay three things, the film is also remarkably well-constructed, if for a complete drag of a purpose and in a purely functional way – everything tells the story, but there isn’t much that even comes close to the word “dynamic”. A few of the teaching montages see director Tom Hooper having a little fun behind the camera, and he does an impressive job when a thick, suffocating fog casts a pall over England on the eve of War, but this is a “script and actors” movie. And if the actors are up to the task, the script is much less sure of itself.
Essentially, the movie starts in a big hole and tries so hard to work its way out that it’s almost commendable – except, of course, when it’s trying to work itself out by by being a bit of a lark it’s also digging its own grave further by failing to be remotely substantive or subversive even when it also deeply wishes to be. Put simply, the hole is its whole philosophy, its raison d’ etre. The idea, about a wealthy aristocrat and his precious personal problems, is as well-worn and superficially smarmy as they come; essentially, it asks that audiences will enjoy an inspirational story about wealthy, famous people getting over their problems and come away going “oh, they are people too, just like us”. And it very much wants to make us feel all the feels for him, his newfound companionship, and what this means for a world united across classes. Under a King, apparently.
All well and good, except that the sheer prevalence of these parables of the rich “learning” to get over their problems tends to override any sense of depth or nuance to class critique (which the film is almost categorically uninterested in except in the vaguest of ways, being archly-Western and thus caught up in the personal while forgoing the social-political). The film ultimately comes away with a positive attitude toward George because he is able to get over his archly-British stuffy aristocratic underpinnings to befriend a person of the middle-class so that he can, well, continue to be archly-British, stuffy, and aristocratic. It’s as though we’re supposed to think him a good person because he’s nice to someone of the middle classes or something such as that…
What the film tries to do is replace the whole cloth of class relations whole sale with an ’80s sitcom, accurate on the count that it doesn’t have a smart thing to say so it settles for being pleasantly loopy, and accurate on the count that it mostly deals with wealthy people and elevates them to a certain “slightly mocking, but mostly moral souls who deserve their wealth for this reason” status as just about every ’80s sitcom did. The thing that saves the film, again, is that it is so light-hearted and jolly that it has the good grace to realize it and keep the film from drowning under its own pretense. But the comedy only gets you so far, especially when it feels less energetic, furious, and lived-in than calculated for mainstream appeal. The King’s Speech isn’t without small pleasures, but its core is so hollow (and not cleverly or chaotically hollow, ala anarchist buddy comedies like Wayne’s World) to hold up all the weight those pleasure put on it. Even when it moves beyond being essentially just a Colin Firth delivery vehicle, it’s stuck in the middle-brow zone, never proud enough to exist as full-on snarky, zany comedy and always putting on airs to hide its fundamental lack of substance or verve.
The Hurt Locker
With The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow sure came out of nowhere (well, if a solid and often subversively fascinating career in genre filmmaking can be considered “nowhere” in Hollywood terms, and the risk-averse film industry seems happy to oblige my terminology). What matters here though: she not only came out of nowhere, but she came out swinging. Armed with a suitably process-oriented script by journalist Mark Boal, Bigelow lets loose with a sun-blistered scream into the oppressive heat that blinds with pure fury and ravaged human decay.
And Bigelow is the key figure here. Boal’s script can be too talky and spends at least one twenty minute segment running around blind alleys (quite literally in fact) that could have been excised from the movie wholesale. In the acting department, Renner gives a cathartic, caustic, haunted malaise of a performance that grounds the film in dreary immediacy. But Bigelow pulls all the strings behind the scenes, frying our nerves with grueling, desperate set-pieces given fire-and-brimstone grandeur (she also manages, for once, to use the increasingly ubiquitous and increasingly overplayed “orange-and-blue” lighting common in films to her benefit, contrasting the harsh almost-yellow sickness of the ground and the people who tread it with the cool, comforting sky the film’s characters can never call home). One shot, the film’s most famous, a bird’s eye view of a frail and brittle stick of a human being surrounded by an almost abstract sand background picking up one explosive device only to find himself engulfed by a circle of them, is the most elegantly, brutally poetic depiction of the Iraq War I’ve yet seen.
More than anything, the film really questions the undeniable excitement found in so many war movies to count, even those which thump the “war is hell” Bible at every possible opportunity. As depicted by Bigelow, war is a soul-sucked drain of an experience that goes on forever and is, rather than being punctuated by moments of chaos, pointedly monotonous. Minutes bleed into hours, and hours are within an inch of lives. It’s tiring to the point where excitement is meaningless, and the film’s narrative, less a story than a series of sequences captured best as “Renner and friends defuse bombs and realize they’re completely useless while doing so”, serves this intentionally stagnant flow exceedingly well. To this extent, the action scenes move beyond excitement and into heaving, gasping reflections of humanity at odds with itself. It’s not quite what Terrence Malick accomplished when he set out to capture how we can never truly understand war and must always exist at a clinical distance to it, but Bigelow manages unlike any other film thus released to get us in the thick of it and resist the temptation to make it all just a bit too exciting for its own good.
It doesn’t quite fully succeed at this, of course, nor could any film – there’s still to much excitement and “fun” to be had, but the film gives it a game try to resist anything that could be considered overtly “entertaining”. Plus, for when it all does get a little bit too exciting, Boal and Bigelow have a little special medicine they concocted. When faced with the claim that it’s really just a movie about how exciting war is, they save face by doing something unheard of: being open-faced about it all. The Hurt Locker is ruthlessly tethered to Renner’s perspective from beginning to end, revealing its depiction of war less as objective than as a tension between what we see as distant observers and what Renner’s character feels. And what he feels, the film makes no bones about being a perpetual high. In other words, the film goes back around the bend of “war is hell that no one can understand” to “war is a hell that can make men understand it so well they can’t live without it”, an infinitely scarier thought that directly implicates us as the audience for developing a more passive form of addiction in the form of watching violent films. It’s something far more valuable than perfect filmmaking: dangerous filmmaking. And that’s something a big ol’ Oscar film hasn’t been, 12 Years accepted, in quite a while now, huh?
Score: 8.5/10 (changed from 9 after re-thinking how seriously one particular sub-plot destroys the film’s momentous malaise)