Tuesday, February 28, 2012


For all intents and purposes, it seems true to say that anachronism and nostalgia come as a package, one begetting the other. Often this may lead to overt sentimentalism, but The Artist, recipient of this year’s Academy Award for Best Film, is a picture built not around longing for the past, but an homage to the origins of cinema. Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted a classic tale about the evolution of the medium, marrying the idiosyncrasies of high silent film with an introspective account of the transition from silent cinema to “the talkies”.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the pinnacle of his career as Hollywoodland’s premier silent film actor. His eyes sparkle and pencil moustache bristles as with joyful gesticulation and unsounding laughter he signs autographs and waggishly winks at his young devotees. His career is doomed, however, as the late twenties host the usurpation of his silent cinema sovereignty by ‘talking’ film. Though the budding format seems to George new-fangled and laughable, it is fully embraced by the public and by adorable rising star Peppy Miller (to the 1920’s what Meg Ryan was to sentimental audiences 70 years later, played by Bérénice Bejo). Despite their ensconcement in each opposing kind of film, Peppy and George brim with fascination and admiration for the other, and sadness for the changing of the times.

The Artist submits that film is a medium of endless possibility and with a long and healthy future, yet omits today’s glittery special effects and blockbuster gimmicks. It is a film-lovers’ film, one that might inhabit a space that no longer exists, before ‘mainstream’ and ‘arthouse’ cinema divorced in the late 20th century: a film that is artwork whilst still being what we might call a ‘crowd-pleaser’. Perhaps more than anything, The Artist speaks as though from a time when “the public” was a newly commercialised corpus, wholesome and excitable, never compartmentalised and analysed, and certainly without such dubious tastes as today.

Filmed in black and white, The Artist is an earnest and loving resuscitation of cinematic classicism. Scenes are framed and shot with a view to capturing moments that resemble the sum total of films like Chinatown, Rear Window, Sabrina and Cleopatra (the Haciendas, Art Nouveau statuettes and voluptuous Coupés abound), and the roles of George Valentin oft resemble the wishful casting of Laurence Olivier as Middle Eastern princes, Greek epic heroes or Shakespearean swashbucklers. The era is tangible, yet Hazanavicius has sensitively avoided glutting on overt cinema references. The movements of each actor are choreographed so as to hint at the legacy of the high-frame-rate (and therefore slightly sped up) slapstick wackiness that characterised early film whilst never crossing into farce. In all, The Artist adopts the best of silent era techniques, Hazanavicius worthily portraying the era and not simply doing a silent film.

Jean Dujardin seems to have been born in black and white. His physicality and appearance are those of a Golden Era star, when male leads were older, dapper and without a trace of boyishness. The pinnacle of manliness was not to shoot a gun or jump from a moving vehicle but to write cheques and smoke cigars, wear a suit properly and to stop listening if a young woman’s legs were exposed nearby. The wiry figure of Bejo is less of the 30’s actress as we think of her; regal, husky-voiced and lazy-lidded women like Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Kepburn. Bejo captures the less-considered flapper darling type of the twenties in whose madcap Charleston and romantic roles is buried the seed of the American sweetheart. Her rendition of Peppy’s over-eager movements is threatened to cross over into uncontrolled flailing and silliness. There are also incredible endearing performances by James Cromwell as Valentin's devoted butler-cum-chauffer and the prolific John Goodman as jowly production bigwig Al Zimmer.

Some mention should be made of the entertainment value of scripting in a sidekick dog. It’s tricks and unconditional obedience was simple, yet uproariously successful way of getting the audience onside (if the improprietous chortling from the senior citizens in the theatre I visited was anything to go by). An adjunct to Dujardin’s performance, perhaps this savvy canine served little more than to allow Dujardin to smile that magnificent winning grin, and perhaps more credence is given to the “dog’s performance” than need be by other commentators, and the sincerity of the film was palpable regardless of the scruffy Jack Russell.

Sound is the flesh of The Artist. The film achieves an elegant balance of shifts in Foley, dialogue and score, as well as total silence. As a silent film made in an era of complex sound layering and artistry (the Los Angeles Times’ introduction to Foley is a sweet entry-level descriptor, though of course the intricacy of a Transformer morphing is perhaps the best example of where contemporary sound mixing and editing is at), The Artist had an unlimited audio palette. It’s almost a feat that Hazanavicius and his sound team had the restraint to produce a film that makes use only of the sounds it needed to: the flourish here is in what is not used. It’s quite absorbing to watch a contemporary film that employs only one sound at a time, whether strong wind, telephone peal or footsteps, each noise starring in it’s own solo moment.
However, The Artist is largely without Foley. Just as in the silent era, it is uniquely composed orchestral music that comprises most of the audio track for The Artist. French composer Ludovic Bource has written a lively score that constantly ebbs and flows with mood, theme and tempo. It’s almost an onslaught, as the score must act as background music, emotive cue, voice and sound effects all at once. At many points the score is dangerously hammy, and surprisingly these moments come not in comedic sequences, but when characters are in crisis. It’s as though, because this is a film about film, the score is reminding us (as Wes Craven once did with The Last House on the Left), that it’s only a movie

For some viewers, The Artist may border on the maudlin side of nostalgia, and indeed is a highly earnest and certainly inoffensive film. Yet, this warning is really only for those, quite unlike myself, are without a large capacity for romance. Rather, one might see The Artist as the culmination of several recent attempts at extolling the virtues, history and very essence of film. These include Spielberg’s 2011 backyard-movie adventure Super 8 and the magical account of Méliès’ career in the otherwise saccharine Hugo (3D) by Scorsese (a director of such weight that his name goes without red underline in Microsoft Word). For Spielberg and Scorsese this look back into the way cinematic fantasy is born is surely due to their advanced careers, their longevity and age within the film industry. But for Hazanavicius, the word film is less about miracle than it is about mankind: a restless civilisation hungry for progress and with so many ‘golden eras’ to its name that only film can contain them. There’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, of silent film, of black and white, celluloid, hand-wound cameras and of all the historical bubbles they represent (George Valentin’s repertoire includes Musketeer and jungle explorer, but one easily finishes this sentence with ‘Robin Hood, Greek God, Egyptian Queen and Sinbad’). The Artist wrangles technique, allusion, history and narrative into a cohesive portrait of the pictures. But perhaps most of all, The Artist suggests that art and entertainment used to be, and may again be, at least some of the time, synonymous. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

AOE Top Ten List 2011

It is, quite simply, that time again. After a year spent in the noble occupations of asserting my (nonetheless fraudulent) right to discounted student ticketing, finding the perfect nasal balance between glasses and 3D glasses, dreaming up questionable movie puns during woeful Yalumba promos and perhaps a few too many cappuccino choc tops, AOE exhumes its notebooks, scribbled star ratings and faded laser-printed ticket stubs to assemble it’s annual Top Ten List. This year the list is selected out of over 55 films released in Australia over the course of 2011 in preparation for the awards season. Films are dubbed meritorious according to entertainment, production, artistic and cultural value, and of course according to AOE’s EO.

10. X-Men First Class

Honourable Mentions: Frankenstein: Live at the NGV; The Tempest; 127 Hours; Project Nim; Attack the Block.


On her lavish wedding day to bashful Michael (Alexander Sarskård), Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is struggling to feel motivated about her nuptials, her future, or the very ritual of living. Her attentive sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) guides her gently through a string of bridal customs amid a surreal ensemble of guests whose cacophony of foibles include bitterness, pretence, vapidity and melodrama. This night is as doomed as another the pair spend together weeks later in the same idyllic seaside estate, after Justine’s depression has deepened and the once-hidden planet Melancholia has loomed into visibility, drifting silently by the Earth.

Melancholia is an entropic narrative progression, a film adorned with beauty and visual spectacle (a triumph in and of itself). It’s a tightly written film with a strong relationship to ancient mythology, classical beauty and the human practise of conjecturing on the future. Von Trier has with Melancholia made a magnum vanitas work (an art history term referring to the genre of still life painting which juxtaposes images of luxury, youth and sensuality with those of decay and death in order to warn the vain or unthinking that mortality must come to us all). Justine is Von Trier’s ultimate motif in this momento mori picture, a luminescent body sculpted in femininity and bridal white, yet hollowed and haunted by despondency.   

This relationship between death and beauty is ancient and recurring, having become part of both religious and scientific wonder equally. What I mean is, anything beautiful is by necessity finite, ephemeral, or simply doomed to change. It is the destruction of all things by erasure or transformation that reveals perfection, just as endurance results in disregard and boredom. Therefore one moment of beauty can only exist instantaneously, a decaying version of itself, perhaps left in human memory. Beauty, sadness and humanity seem to be tragically interlinked this way.

Melancholia is formed of three parts. First, the title sequence: an almighty montage of slow motion, high-resolution scenes that foreshadow the coming film. They have an elite fashion photography flavour in their slickness, lighting and glamorisation of disaster. Part One: Justine tells the story of the bride’s fear at the precipice of the rest of her life and Part Two: Claire of Claire’s fear at the precipice of Melancholia’s approach towards Earth.

I do hate to say this, but I found Part One dizzying. Perhaps it was a combination of not having eaten and an out-dated optical prescription, but I had to close my eyes intermittently to keep my hand-held camera blues at bay. One could easily ascribe this effect to some mimicry of Justine’s struggle through the haze of depression, or a reflection on her haywire personality, but I hesitate to link Von Trier to either such amateurish excuses. Rather, and sadly, it was a little too shaky for me.

The hotel grounds in which the entirety Melancholia is set are a sprawling idyll of incredible beauty, a perfect Arcadian blend of wilderness and artifice, overflowing with references to classical painting. It’s a dioramic Eden, an allegory for the whole of humanity, containing a man, wife, child (Claire, John, Leo), and the spectre of death (Justine). Its sprawling grassy terrace is a custom-built viewing platform upon which to witness the cataclysm of worlds. The film is threaded together by a grave reprieve from Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan Und Isolde, a shimmering lament whose duty in the original opera was to foreshadow romantic tragedy, or liebestod (‘love death’). The piece is enriching without being overwhelmingly emotional, as grandiose orchestral scores, often independently of the film, can be.

There are innumerable references to great artworks littered throughout Melancholia. Among them, John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, which depicts the unravelled female allowing her body to succumb to madness and nature; The Greek goddess Diana bathing in a stream, her erotic, lunar paleness glimpsed timidly by the hunter Acteon; The moonlight paintings of Turner; the shimmering seas and precipices of Caspar David Friedrich. All these seem to claim that true art exists in situ and not on canvas, negating the idea of literary or artistic posterity. Indeed, contrary to the historical immortality great men aspire to, Melancholia presents an antithesis to the dystopia we humans love to fantasise about. There is no pandemic, nuclear fallout, or death on a pale horse. The Earth is simply gone, along with its history, and its self-declared universal significance. This is a stunning way in which to describe the impermanence that is often so hard to grasp during the solidity of day-to-day routine.

Melancholia seems truly to address inevitability in a different way to other films dealing with oncoming mortality, such as this year’s elegant Take Shelter, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Road or Bergman masterpiece The Seventh Seal. It lacks any hint of hope begot by the unpredictability or mystical nature of the universe. Though it might not feel like it, Melancholia is a highly empirical film, grounded in fact, science, and reality. Not even Justine’s third-act revelation that she is tuned into the cosmos in some supernatural way provides respite from the oncoming planet. It is in hoodwinking the young Leo (Cameron Spurr) into believing in a magical cave that the devastating absence of miracle in the world is laid bare. In this, Melancholia deems the protection of his innocence as instinctual and tacit behaviour. Though Justine is entrenched in morbidity, she nonetheless spares her nephew the trauma of mortal knowledge, regardless of the fact that the boy will barely live long enough to experience that trauma.

When the symptomatic suspicion of clinical depression – ‘what is the point?’ – is confirmed, what then? How does one prepare for the relentless approach of the end of all things? Surely some kind of ceremony is in order. What spiritual guide contains the ritual we must solemnly observe on the last of days? Perhaps, like Christmas, this is a time to be spent with loved ones. Should we feast? Kill ourselves? Does it matter? Claire’s idea of an apocalypse met with wine, hands held and high classical symphonic fanfare is one that seems almost natural given man’s predisposition towards ceremony. It’s an artful response, one that helps to ascribe significance to the event. This might be like holding your own funeral before you die, as nobody will mark your passing. In her advanced state of depression, Justine chides her sister’s attempt at giving formality to the end of the world. Her unnatural ungratefulness over her own wedding in Part One may have already switched off audience empathy over Justine’s death, but does she have a point? It’s worth considering.

Whilst there has been much said about the relationship between Melancholia and Lars Von Trier’s own gripping listlessness, the film comes at a poignant time. Piety is waning in the West, while the universal landscape is further mapped. The once-rapid evolution of space travel and extra-terrestrial Imperialism has slowed to a crawl at about the same time that the reality of Earth’s limited resources has finally hit home. Yet of all the calamitous threats in the world, celestial collision is one of the easiest to put out of mind. The stars twinkle pictorially, as much a part of fictional pantheons, mythical constellations and heavenly firmaments as ever; the Sun and Moon are reduced to reliable aerial symbols, infographics that mark the time of day. Melancholia peels away this fictive veil, again revealing the perils of the universe.

In his lecture series Death, Yale professor and extraordinary exponent of the theory of mortality Shelly Kagan explains that the problem with trying to conceive of your own death is that it’s almost impossible not to accidentally place yourself in the picture. If somebody says to you “imagine you are dead”, you will visualise being in a coffin, spying on your own funeral or an aerial perspective of an Earth you aren’t walking on. Either way you’re involved. Melancholia goes some way to sidestepping this phenomenon, as it is the whole of the Earth dying. There is nothing to imagine – there is nothing to imagine.

Perhaps my own greatest fear, on the last day of all life, would be to feel  (like Justine) so disconnected from the significance of the event, as to be unable to fully and completely understand, see and feel my oncoming death; To disintegrate mid-blink whilst trying to look death in the face.