I can’t hide it; I have to tell someone… I’m in love with Peppy Miller! Well, the character played by the gorgeous Bérénice Bejo in The Artist. But then I’ve also been in love at various times with Audrey Tautou as Amélie, Marion Cottard as Coco Chanel and Juliette Binoche as almost any of her characters… I guess there’s something that appeals to me about French actresses. It’ll pass.
My latest infatuation is a very recent one. I went to see The Artist on Saturday night with The Daughter and a friend of the family who travelled here by train with her mother all the way from Sheffield for a long weekend. Having left our Guardian on the train, they tried to fob us off on arrival with a copy of the Sheffield Telegraph. The cheek of these visitors!
Succumbing to the hype, we went to see the latest Academy Award winner at the cinema in nearby Vayrac. Normally we aim to get there five minutes before the customary 9.00pm start, safe in the knowledge that you still have the choice of any of the comfortable seats in the steeply raked cavernous auditorium. There’s always time before the curtains part to exchange pleasantries with the familiar faces who turn up like clockwork for the twice-monthly versions originales. Five euros to watch a new release in the company of friends and familiar strangers: now that’s what I call a deal.
On Saturday night, we got there 20 minutes before the scheduled screening time. All the usual parking places were occupied and, for the first time ever, I had to try out the car park behind the cinema, which is maybe 25 yards further from the entrance. There was already a queue at the booking office and the auditorium continued to fill up until the last possible minute. It was a well-and-truly packed house. Never seen anything like it in all my born days! Not even for The King’s Speech.
It was hardly surprising. The French love their films and they’re very patriotic about any that become international hits. Not too long ago, they were queuing up in droves for Des Hommes et Des Dieux, which won a mere Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. They even queued to see it at the makeshift cinema in Martel, where you sit with bum-numbing discomfort on wooden benches for the experience of all those exasperating features of private film clubs: jumps, scratches, suspect sound and pauses between reels. In an age of multiplex screens and American-style buckets of popcorn, it’s reassuring to know that it’s still possible to watch films in purgatory.
Of course, Of Gods And Men was accolade-lite in comparison to The Artist. Not only has it won five Oscars, but also those Oscars weren’t just for Best Foreign Film or Best Trained Animal. No sirree, they were for Best Film and for Best Actor. Sacré bleu, Jean Dujardin even managed to hold off the challenge of George Clooney. Which. I imagine, must fill the national bosom with as much pride as Mother Russia would have felt when Yuri Gagarin pipped Alan Sheppard, John Glenn et al to be the first man in space.
Well, I’m happy to report that the accolades were thoroughly deserved. For a start, I would have awarded it an Oscar for the most audacious idea for a film. Imagine having to pitch it to a producer. ‘You want me to find x million dollars to finance a silent film?’ It’s one of those blissfully simple and retrospectively obvious ideas that can never be repeated. Hopefully, the powers of Hollywood will have the taste to recognise that you cannot make The Artist 2 and Son of The Artist.
I think the last silent films I watched would have been films like Battleship Potemkin, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis: all those classic films that anyone who fancies himself or herself as a serious student of film feels duty-bound to watch. So it was quite strange to be sitting among an audience gathered together to watch a silent film for no other motive than sheer entertainment. It’s hard to tell in the dark, of course, but I imagine that just about everyone there sat through it with a fixed grin. If there was anyone there who understood English, they might have even derived a curious pleasure (as I confess I did) from lip-reading certain words and phrases and then mouthing them idiotically to themselves. Maybe silent films do that kind of thing to a spectator. We will have forgotten.
As someone who has attempted to script a film, it was also a fascinating reminder of just how much information you can convey visually. There were minimal captions and, even without them, I think I could have managed to unravel what was happening rather more easily than my wife did when she went to see Kurosawa’s Ran in Copenhagen, forgetting that the Japanese dialogue would be dubbed into Danish and not English.
All in all, the leading man had a winning smile, his dog was as captivating as The Thin Man’s Astor the Wonderdog and Peppy Miller was just a doll. I could have wrapped her up in brown paper and taken her home – but I’m not quite sure the family would have taken it. She captured the same kind of goofy charm and vulnerability that Shirley MacLaine had in Sweet Charity and Judy Holliday had in Born Yesterday.
It’s a clever, charming and entertaining film and you can understand its popularity. I suspect, however, that it will prove to be one of those Oscar-winners, like Around The World in 80 Days, that never really stands the test of time – something more of the moment than one of those truly great Oscar-winners, like On The Waterfront or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, to name but two, that last from here to eternity.
I’ve heard that the demand for Jack Russell dogs has rocketed in the wake of the film. I suppose that’s slightly better than everyone wanting an orang-utan in the wake of Every Which Way But Loose, or an endangered tropical fish after that Disney film whose name I have forgotten. I’m not like that, of course. Not susceptible to that kind of influence. I’d be quite happy with a Peppy Miller.