The Artist – Screening Notes

The Artist won five Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. Not bad for a black and white silent French movie. A sensation at the Cannes Film Festival back in May 2011 the film was quickly snapped up by film producer Harvey Weinstein. An expert at distributing movies and getting them noticed by the Academy Weinstein previously led films as diverse as The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan), The English Patient (1997, Anthony Minghella), and The King’s Speech (2011, Tom Hooper) to box office success and the Oscars.
Silent movie star George Valentin (Dujardin) basks in the success of his latest movie. Accompanied everywhere onscreen and off by his beloved canine sidekick Valentin is the biggest star in town, but his refusal to adapt to the arrival of talking pictures puts his career in jeopardy. A young starlet Peppy Miller (Bejo) whom Valentin helped get started in Hollywoodreplaces him in the public’s affections and he is quickly forgotten. That is by everybody except Peppy who keeps an eye on her old mentor but knows he is too proud to accept her help.
Director Michel Hazanavicius and Dujardin previously worked together on a couple of comedies OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006) and its sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009). Expertly sending up the spy movie, most notably the Connery era Bonds they showcased Dujardin’s physical athleticism and his ability to make a conceited idiot likeable. Hazanavicius skilfully recreated the look and feel of the Sixties spy film so successfully both of these movies seemed to belong entirely to the period they were set in. The Artist too feels like a genuine silent era film, right down to its use of intertitles and its reliance on composer Ludovic Bource’s wonderful score to accompany the images.
Valentin bears a passing resemblance to silent screen star Douglas Fairbanks, one of the most charismatic and physically agile performers ever to grace the screen. Footage from Fairbanks great swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1921, Fred Niblo) even appears in the film briefly, edited into a sequence with Dujardin dressed as Zorro. The resemblance is purely physical though, Valentin shares Fairbanksdelight in his own athleticism and his considerable charm, but not his intelligence. Fairbankswas smart, experimenting with sound, co-founding United Artists, and the UCLA’s film department.
Though cult filmmaker Guy Maddin has directed full length silent movies, notably a stunning ballet version of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (2002) his work is only really of interest to film buffs. The Artist however succeeds as a loving tribute to the silent era and as a mainstream crowd-pleaser. Cute dog too.

The Black Pirate (1926, Albert Parker) – Screening Programme Notes

In this classic swashbuckler a young sailor (Douglas Fairbanks) is the only survivor of an attack by pirates. Seeking revenge for the death of his father the sailor joins the pirate band responsible and tries to destroy them from within. Proving his worth by single-handedly capturing a ship in a daring feat of bravado the sailor eventually becomes known as the Black Pirate. Matters are complicated however when the pirates capture a beautiful princess (Billie Dove) and the Black Pirate must put himself at risk to keep her safe from harm.

Jane Gardner – Pianist

Jane has accompanied screenings of silent movies in London at the Barbican Centre and the National Film Theatre. This is her second appearance at The Station after accompanying a screening of The General (1926, Buster Keaton) in January.

Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939)

There’s a great story about Douglas Fairbanks which emphasises the playfulness and remarkable agility of this legendary Hollywood star. While filming Robin Hood (1922, Allan Dwan) the producers forbade Fairbanks from performing an elaborate stunt. The sequence involved Robin riding towards a castle, then holding on to the drawbridge as it is raised, jumping on to a chain and climbing 50 feet up the front of the set. A stuntman was hired and seemingly performed the stunt with aplomb. Until it dawned on the production crew the stunt man was standing next to them watching the show. The figure waving to them from above was the real Doug Fairbanks.

Physically graceful with a gift for comedy Fairbanks quickly became a popular star in Hollywood. An early highlight is the short comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916, Christy Cabanne, John Emerson) a Sherlock Holmes spoof with Fairbanks as a detective who uses cocaine for inspiration and solves a crime involving an inflatable beach toy.

In 1919 Fairbanks, his lover Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffiths, and Charlie Chaplin formed the studio United Artists to give themselves more artistic independence. Fairbanks took a huge risk by producing the swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1921, Fred Niblo). Nobody had tried anything like this before. In case it failed Fairbanks made a backup film, an ingenious slapstick comedy called The Nut (Theodore Reed 21) about an eccentric inventor.

Zorro was a huge success and turned Fairbanks into the most bankable star around. Fairbanks continued in this vein playing D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (21) with Niblo again directing. There quickly followed Robin Hood (22, Dwan), The Thief of Baghdad (24, Raoul Walsh), Don Q: Son of Zorro (25, Donald Crisp), The Black Pirate, and D’Artagnan again in The Iron Mask (29, Dwan).

Aware of cinema’s growing cultural importance. Fairbanks helped create the USCLA’S film programme. An innovator onscreen and off he was one of the first to experiment with sound though the technology wasn’t quite ready for The Iron Mask.  Fairbanks first Talkie saw him delivering iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (30, Sam Taylor). His career eventually tailed off and after his marriage to Pickford broke up Fairbanks moved to England. There was one last hurrah in The Private Life of Don Juan (34, Alexander Korda) with Fairbanks as the great lover realising his swashbuckling days are coming to an end.

Top Ten Films 2011

Here’s my top ten list for 2011. As with all lists it is a matter of personal taste.


“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” 

Its final descent into a hellish sexual underworld with sex-addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender) on an odyssey to penetrate anything with an orifice is ridiculous but for the most part Shame is a haunting study of urban loneliness. The heart of the film is the fractious relationship between Brandon and his equally damaged sister Irene (Carey Mulligan). Fassbender has been getting most of the acclaim but Mulligan matches him. There is clearly some traumatic incident in their past they can’t get over and though there are subtle hints screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Steve McQueen avoid offering any easy explanations. Shame is exactly how I like my movies, ambiguous, voyeuristic, and full of yearning. And when it comes to singing ‘New York New York’ Carey Mulligan kicks Frank Sinatra’s ass.


” (Silence)”

Director Michel Hazanavicius proved himself to be a dab hand at pastiche with his OSS 117 movies. This charming tale of a silent era movie star (Jean Dujardin) having to deal with the advent of sound and repressing his feelings for Hollywood’s new It Girl (Berenice Bejo) captures the style of those early movies perfectly. Both actors seem like they belong in the 1920’s. Dujardin channels Douglas Fairbanks and his permanently amused screen presence. Bejo’s comic timing is exceptional.  Oddly enough for a film made in black and white The Artist reminded me a lot of Stanley Donen’s Technicolor masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain (1952). It too is about a silent star trying to deal with the advent of sound. The approach the two directors make to their stories may be different but their final coda is the same; “Gotta Dance!”


“Everything is transient. Follow Heaven’s Mandate”

Lush epic murder-mystery from genre specialist Tsui Hark. Andy Lau’s world-weary detective is freed from prison to investigate a series of murders linked to the construction of a giant Buddha statue. Featuring spontaneous combustion, talking fawns, and kung fu fights with puppets on a string, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has everything you could want from a wuxia. Sammo Hung choreographed the fight sequences. There’s great support from Carina Lau as China’s only female Empress, Li Bingbing as her right hand woman, and Chao Deng as an enigmatic albino warrior. 

“Life is only on Earth, and not for long.”

A welcome return to the stylised form of film-making Lars von Trier rejected for the strictures of Dogme, Melancholia is the director’s best work since the TV series The Kingdom (1994). As social satire and as sci-fi the film flounders, but as an insight into a depressive state of mind Melancholia is outstanding. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) destroys her own wedding without really meaning to as a happy event turns into a precursor for the end of the world. In the second part of the film Justine is a near catatonic wreck until a planet hurtles towards Earth on a collision course. Then she comes alive. ecstatic even, bathing nude in the moonlight and coming to terms with oblivion far more capably than her well adjusted sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s a comforting thought for those who view life through a glass darkly. Especially as von Trier suggests those of a cheerier disposition are fucked. 

“Then he sighed and his body relaxed and that was the moment…”

Asif Kapadia’s sensitively handled documentary about the great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna had me in tears. The bitter rivalry between Senna and his nemesis Alain Prost is fascinating. A clash between two opposing forces, Senna the romantic who always raced to win, and Prost the pragmatist who planned out his races beforehand. Kapadia compiled Senna using archive footage never cutting away from events to look back on them meaning we stay in the moment watching Senna as he goes on with his career. It makes the final part of the film focusing on the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix which also cost the life of Roland Ratzenberger even more powerful. 

“Are you in therapy too?”

Almodovar’s last three films are lifeless and showed a worrying tendency towards good taste. The critics still fawned over them which made me hate the films even more, but The Skin I Live In  is an outrageous return to form. Though essentially a horror film Almodovar still directs in his lush melodramatic style. The narrative unfolds through flashbacks as we begin to find out just why a troubled surgeon (Antonio Banderas) has a beautiful woman locked in his house. I’ll say no more because The Skin I Live In is best seen without knowing too much about it. And with Hollywood having nothing to offer Banderas but voicing cats and cameos in Spy Kids movies it is so good to see him back with his mentor for the first time since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990).
This is the story of my life. Now that I’m dead I finally meet a nice guy.”

An offbeat murder mystery with the quirky tragicomic tone of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1989-91) Gérald Hustache-Mathieu’s film functions as an unofficial biopic of Marilyn Monroe. Fragile beauty Candice (Sophie Quinton) is the much loved celebrity whose death shocks a small town. World-weary crime novelist Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is not convinced by the verdict of suicide and starts his own investigation. A facsimile for all the film buffs who obsess over Marilyn’s Rousseau’s initial journalistic impulses give way to romantic longing. Hustache-Mathieu finds inventive ways to incorporate events from Marilyn’s life into his narrative and Nobody Else But You is a far more fitting tribute than the film adapted from the dubious memoirs of Colin Clark My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis 2011).

Copyright Focus Features

“Tell her the darkness is about to drown us”

This is 2011. This is what movies look like. Mike Mills beautifully observed drama flits between the past and the present as Oliver (Ewan McGregor) recalls his complex relationship with his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and grieves for him after his death. Hal came out as a gay man in his 70’s leading Oliver to reflect on his parents marriage and his own romantic failures as he begins a tentative relationship with a French actress (Melanie Laurent). Mills deals with big themes; mortality, loss, homosexuality from the 50’s onwards, but does so with a lightness of touch and Beginners never feels pretentious or heavy going.   
“All of my bones are broken”

Novelist Julia Leigh makes her directorial debut with this baffling, haunting, perverse, oddity which plays like a deadpan version of a 70’s softcore flick. Emily Browning is Lucy, a student sleepwalking through her life submitting herself to the desires of others. Only a tender friendship with a socially withdrawn drunken literary type suggests Lucy can feel anything at all. She gets a job working as a lingerie-wearing waitress at elaborate dinner parties organised by an attractive older woman (Rachael Blake) then allows herself to be drugged and put to sleep for melancholy old men to peruse. The acting is stylised rather than realistic, the dialogue artfully constructed especially when Leigh decides to break the fourth wall during a conversation by switching from a reverse shot to having one of the characters directly address the camera and deliver a lengthy monologue on how weary he is with life. What’s the film all about? Is it a parable about the objectification of female beauty? Maybe it’s a mad parody about the exploitation of those working in the food service industry.Or maybe Lucy is dreaming for at one point we see her going to sleep and the screen goes dark. I’m not sure Leigh wants us to know and Sleeping Beauty is all the better for this ambiguity. 

Credit – Richard Foreman

 “There’s something about you boy”

There has been a fair old backlash against Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek and stylish existential crime thriller. The arthouse crowd resent an exploitative B-movie getting critical acclaim while curiously enough the artier aspects of Refn’s direction alienated those who like their action films to be a bit more fast and furious. Drive is derivative but genre films always are. Its influences are many; Melville, Michael Mann, Shane (George Stevens 1950), Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), and pretty much the whole of the 1980’s. However Refn brings his own sensibility to the film. Refn’s devotion to violent protagonists has been in evidence since his debut film Pusher (1997) and once again he takes a morally non-committed approach to his storytelling. It is entirely up to the audience whether they see the Ryan Gosling’s Driver as a hero or a head-stomping psycho. The early scenes with Driver growing close to Carey Mulligan’s single mom have a tenderness rarely present in Refn’s work. Only the awkward courtship between social misfits Lenny and Lea in the otherwise macho Bleeder (1999) hinted Refn has a romantic side. One day Refn might actually get around to making a great drama about real human beings rather than films about movie archetypes but till then I’m happy to watch him move from genre to genre. Next up a martial arts film with Ryan Gosling. Looking forward to it already.