Posts Tagged ‘Jean Dujardin’

What a pleasure it is to be able to visit the cinemas in and around Leicester Square once more – it’s like being let out of prison, even if doing so at the moment involves staggering through the streets of London rather like Edward Judd at the beginning of The Day the Earth Caught Fire. (Where can a person get a stillsuit when they need one?) Being able to see the big Hollywood releases is all very well and good, but the great all-song of cinema is incomplete without the quirky little themes and unlikely melodies provided by less mainstream fare you only find in independent cinemas.

With Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin (F-title: Le Daim, which apparently translates as either The Deer or The Suede) we are certainly some way off the beaten track, drawn there, perhaps, by the star power of Jean Dujardin, who was rather famous around the world for The Artist a while back but has shown a creditable disregard for the siren song of American movies. Not that Dupieux is without a certain reputation of his own: in addition to writing and directing (amongst other things) 2010’s Rubber, the greatest film about a homicidal tyre with psychic powers ever made, he also had a sort of music career as the creator of Flat Eric and the Flat Beat (google at your peril: some things are best left forgotten).

As the film opens we find Dujardin on the road. He is playing an ordinary-seeming fellow named Georges, but it soon becomes clear he is perhaps not such an anonymous chap: stopping for a break, he abruptly decides to take off his coat (an inoffensive green corduroy number) and attempts to flush it down the lavatory, not very successfully. (There’s a story that Martin Fry of the pop group ABC once attempted to do the same thing with a gold lame suit.)

Anyway, the now-shirtsleeved Georges reaches his destination, where he is making a purchase from an old man. He’s buying a replacement jacket, made entirely of deerskin, and he seems absolutely delighted with it – despite the fact it is obviously too small and too short for him. Nevertheless, he coughs up more than 7000 Euros for the thing, receiving as a sort of bonus a small digital video camera.

Resplendent in his new jacket, Georges drives off to somewhere remotely Alpine and checks into a hotel, despite the fact his credit card has stopped working. Conning the staff into letting him stay on, he decides – despite a total lack of knowledge or expertise – to pass himself off as an auteur film-maker, and starts presenting himself as such at the local bar, where he befriends barmaid and aspiring editor Denise (Adele Haenel).

There is so clearly something not quite right about Georges that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when he starts carrying on conversations with the jacket, supplying its contributions himself. It’s not even as if this is a case of a troubled man having found a friend, for the jacket has an ambition it wants Georges to help it achieve. Fortunately, Georges has his own dream, and – what are the chances? – the two things dovetail perfectly…

Yup, another tale of a man undergoing a mid-life crisis and forming an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with a psychotic piece of clothing: only from the director of Rubber could this really be described as a step towards more mainstream and accessible fare. At least it’s clear what this is: it’s a horror-comedy, or possibly a comedy-horror, albeit one with a very distinctive tone to it.

This is a real slow-burner of a film, which starts off looking relatively normal before slowly sliding into the realms of the truly bizarre. From the start it is completely deadpan, with perhaps the faintest touch of a knowingly tongue-in-cheek feel: as the story progresses and Georges’ behaviour becomes more and more outlandish, you’re increasingly aware that the story is completely ridiculous and implausible – never mind the farcical way in which Georges’ breakdown expresses itself, there’s the behaviour of all the other characters, and the mysterious non-appearance of the police or media (given a gory and substantial killing spree takes place).

And yet it stays very watchable and engaging, rather than becoming absurd to the point of complete silliness. This is mostly down to Jean Dujardin, who carries the majority of the scenes himself and brings an enormous amount of understated conviction to Georges: a peculiar and rather sad individual he may be, but he’s not unsympathetic, and it’s Dujardin’s portrayal of his vanity and cluelessness which really finds the veins of black comedy running through the film.

Helping very much is Adele Haenel, as someone theoretically sane but proving to be remarkably credulous as the film goes on and Georges’ tales of what he’s up to unravel. Unlike Dujardin, Haenel plays it entirely straight – or at least as straight as the material will permit – which just adds to the oddness of the film. Are we supposed to conclude that life in small-town France is so dreary she’s prepared to engage in a kind of folie a deux with Georges just because it offers the prospect of escape? (Possibly folie a trois if you count the jacket.)

Unfortunately, any resolution of all this is limited, at best: Deerskin lasts a brisk and peculiar 75 minutes or so and then ends, the story having come to an abrupt and largely unresolved stop. It’s not just another of the formal post-modern pranks which Dupieux inserted so many of into Rubber, as there is a vague attempt at conventional storytelling involved here (exposition is laid in well in advance). This doesn’t make the lack of closure any less unsatisfactory, though.

Oh well. I enjoyed Deerskin a lot more than Rubber, and frequently found myself laughing out loud at the sheer deadpan strangeness of it, mainly as manifested through Dujardin and his performance. This is about 75% of a really good film; the problem is not that the other 25% isn’t up to the same standard, it’s that it just isn’t there at all.

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If you were to saunter into the offices of any major movie studio and request $15 million to engage the services of much noted international talent so that they might make a lavish black-and white movie set in 1920s Hollywood, featuring virtually no dialogue to speak of and with a key role played by a Jack Russell terrier, you would probably yourself rapidly expelled from the same offices very shortly afterwards, possibly… Zut alors! Pardonez-moi, mes amis, I’m having a touch of the deja vus. Actually, when you put it like that, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist isn’t quite so unusual compared to some of the other films on major release right now. But even so…

Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a rather Douglas Fairbanks-ish silent movie star in 1920s Hollywood. Valentin is a big star and rather full of himself, and initially doesn’t pay much attention when he crosses the path of aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Valentin gets her a job as an extra on his new movie, and while there’s obviously chemistry between them, events conspire so that nothing comes of it.

Time passes and Peppy’s star waxes, even as news of a strange new invention reaches the studio: talking cinema. Valentin refuses to even contemplate making a sound movie and embarks upon his own financially risky project, while his former bosses give Peppy her own star vehicle – with sound, of course. One of them is clearly rising, but is the other’s fall inevitable? And can they come together long enough to recapture the brief spark they once shared?

Everyone seems to be talking about The Artist, which is probably just as well given that nobody’s actually talking in it. Even better, they all seem to be going to see it – as I’ve mentioned before, it’s regularly playing to sold-out houses at the local arthouse. Glowing reviews and a smidge of novelty value clearly have considerable combined influence – and the movie does live up to expectations.

Is this just a novelty film, though? Certainly, making a silent movie pastiche sounds like a very gimmicky idea, and there’s a sense in which it’s slightly perverse to be making a silent movie about the advent of sound – just as it would be to make a black and white film about the coming of colour. On the other hand, black and white movies are still being made now, over seventy years after the invention of colour stock – perhaps it’s a stylistic choice like any other, and Hazanavicius is using the silent format in the same way that, say, Abel Ferrara used monochrome in The Addiction?

Hmm. Even if this was being given as the reason why, I would be dubious – black and white films hung in there for thirty years or more before finally being consigned to the realms of the arty and the terminally low-budget. With a very few exceptions, talkies displaced silent movies completely and very rapidly within a handful of years. So it seems unlikely that Hazanavicius is rediscovering a lost and distinct art form. Apparently The Artist emerged from his admiration for the era and its film-makers and also its focus on visual storytelling, and both of these are richly visible in the film itself.

That said, the most obvious kisses to the past in this movie go to Citizen Kane and Singin’ in the Rain, both of which were talkies! (The re-use in this movie of parts of Vertigo‘s score has also been the subject of much recent flapping, which if nothing else has spared me from burbling on about how authentically the soundtrack imitates Bernard Herrmann…) The visual storytelling in The Artist is the real joy of the film, however – there are relatively few intertitles, and the rest of the movie relies on ceaseless inventiveness and some brilliant flourishes – there are several uses of films-within-the-film, and so on – but also a tremendous understanding of the grammar of editing. The director isn’t afraid to play with the conventions of the form, and doesn’t let himself be straitjacketed by it either – at a couple of points sound intrudes into The Artist‘s silent world, always with good reason and to spine-tingling effect.

One of the great things about silent cinema is its ability to travel internationally with a minimum of reworking – and in a similar vein, an international cast coexists here very happily. Jean Dujardin and the winsome Berenice Bejo’s previous work in knockabout Bond spoofs will probably be receiving a lot more attention now, while John Goodman and James Cromwell turn up in surprisingly minor roles. The performer getting the most attention, however, is Uggie the Dog for his scene-stealing turn as the Dog. The Artist has already won the prestigious (it says here) Palm Dog – ‘for the outstanding canine performance at the Cannes Film Festival’ – and moves have been made to have Uggie nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year. Somehow I can’t see the collective dignity of the Academy standing for that, but it’s a nice idea – even if he’d probably end up sharing the stage with Spielberg’s flippin’ horse…

Anyway. I’m pretty sure the success of The Artist is a one-off – the subject matter really lends itself to this kind of treatment, while I suspect a great deal of the film’s appeal derives from a peculiar combination of novelty value and nostalgia. (Even so, I am bracing myself for a slew of inferior knock-offs, not to mention the two leads being shoehorned into unflattering supporting roles in big-budget American films a la Sharlto Copley, Monica Bellucci, etc.) Nevertheless the film itself is great fun, witty, romantic and occasionally moving, and it’s exactly the kind of self-consciously nostalgic, classic entertainment that Oscar’s shown a distinct fondness for in the past. I suspect the Palm Dog will end up with some equally distinguished company before too many weeks elapse.

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