Just what everyone wants for Christmas: a black-and-white film with no spoken dialogue starring a barely known French actor. It’s a joke, isn’t it? Yes, it is, and very funny, very charming, brimmingly inventive. The Artist blew everyone away at Cannes. It is a pastiche of silent cinema with a charismatic lead player. Jean Dujardin resembles a triple hybrid of Sean Connery, Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks. He can also act. He beat a stellar field (including Sean Penn, Antonio Banderas and Michel Piccoli) to the Cannes Best Actor prize.
The French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has two previous convictions for blowing people away. With Dujardin he made a pair of droll James Bond parodies, OSS: 117, Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio. He is cinema-mad, so expect few minutes to go by without, say, a spoof of the famous breakfast scene in Citizen Kane or a blast of Vertigo music over the last-reel decline of Dujardin’s movie star hero. Clobbered by the talkies – which threaten his career survival – he wanders suicidally through the streets, seeking death or the saving love of his inamorata, Peppy (Bérénice Bejo). The setting is Los Angeles and everyone is American, even though two of the players are French. (Since they mouth to intertitles it doesn’t matter).
To the objection, “Who but a square-eyed movie nerd cares about the cinema’s transition from silence to sound?” I give you Singin’ in the Rain. Same epoch, same career crises. Dujardin, like Gene Kelly’s elders in the musical, fears his superstardom will go thataway. But there are always hope and love. There is also the hero’s pet dog, a Jack Russell terrier stealing every scene not nailed to a floor. And thanks to Hazanavicius there are non-stop flurries of comic invention, many riffing on the paradoxes of sound and silence. I loved too the bar scene with a semi-drunken hero talking to a Tom Thumb-sized doppelgänger on the counter, soon joined by a little army of Bonsai-sized jungle tribesfolk. (This is what happens when you are recovering from a flopped jungle talkie).
Is the film more than a novelty plaything? Perhaps not. But within its confines it multi-achieves. Comedy is one thing, but pathos is also plentiful – wry, graceful, understated – and charm, which you can’t manufacture. Like a beneficent disease it is either there or not. In The Artist it is present, inoperably, in every frame.
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, part one of his Millennium Trilogy, has been raining gold coins ever since it was published. Now Hollywood has put out the bucket. It had to happen. What is it with these books? Sixty-five million copies sold; intelligent people going gaga about Larsson at cocktail parties; a Swedish screen trilogy already released. If that version wasn’t enough, at half the length of Wagner’s Ring, here is, so to speak, the other half.
My theory: Larsson’s opus is Wagner’s Ring, returning Wanderer-like in a lowlier, earthier guise. Here is the ancestral curse; here is the punk Brunnhilde, the butch, unworldly garbed Lisbeth (Rooney Mara replacing the irreplaceable-for-some Noomi Rapace); and here is a nest of multiplying subplots built around the fall – the Götterdämmerung – of a power-blighted dynasty.
Sensibly the chosen director is David Fincher. He is the man for myth-touched tales of driven or acquisitive antiheroes (Fight Club, The Social Network) and for Laocoön-coiled thriller plots (Zodiac). Steven Schindler’s List Zaillian wrote the script. The multi-national actors are groomed in a common accent – “please sound Scandinavian, guys” – although Daniel Craig as lead sleuth Mikael Blomkvist is excused accent duty since he’s a star.
The annoying thing is, it’s riveting. We know what will happen and it’s still riveting. Author Larsson died after completing the books, slain in my belief by an awareness of achieved perfection. What was left to do? He got everything right the first time: the crypto-Nazi family, the witching tease of the missing girl, the linked murders serially revealed, the bisexual girl-gumshoe festooned with piercings and tattoos. All this plus, here, James Bond visiting the Earth Wanderer-like (yes, let’s go with that again) as a tatterdemalion journo with a knack for getting roughed up. The 150 minutes pass like 150 seconds. Two more movies? Bring them on.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a more optional serving of déjà vu. Gallivanting around Russia trying to save us all from nuclear payday, Tom Cruise “does his own stunts”. These include the smirk, the hair-toss, the head jut, the finger-jab and all the other Cruise athleticisms we know and, if hard pressed by Hollywood, love.
The fantastic nonsense of this warmed-up cold war plot – streamlined, supersonic, special-effects-intensive nonsense – ends with a showdown between hero and villain, played by Michael Nyqvist. Small world. Nyqvist played the hero in the Swedish version of the Millennium Trilogy. I told you the pattern of our life on Earth. You achieve perfection; then you are translated to death, living or otherwise.
In Luc Besson’s The Lady, every main character brims with messianic goodwill. This is the dramatised story of Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. Not even Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, cast in the main role, can bring out her martial arts chops. She projects luminous decency for 130 minutes – it’s exhausting – and David Thewlis fares similarly as her husband. An Oxford professor sundered from her by political fate, his eyebrows soldered into a donnish frown, his voice peckish, precise and petit point, he is a scarily exact blend of the late A J Ayer and the likewise Lord David Cecil.
The inspiring true story soon suffers respiratory failure. We can’t keep saying, “How true, how true,” whenever these people open their mouths. Nor can we keep hissing the baddies of the Burmese junta, played like a series of Bond villains. I expected the white cat any minute, and the line, “So, Miss Suu Kyi…”.