Black and white, 100 minutes, with title cards and some English subtitles.
Screenwriter and director: Michael Hazanavicius. Cinematography: Guilaume Schiffman. Music: Ludovic Bource.
The Leeds international Film Festival (where this was the penultimate screening) in its catalogue quotes the director: “what I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is – a show. I’m interested in the stylisation of reality, the possibility of playing with codes.” Hazanavicius seems to have succeeded, the film has had very good responses at the Cannes Film Festival and generally in France: the audience in Leeds clearly enjoyed the film, there was lot of laugher and a burst of applause as the end credits played out. I was less enthusiastic. This is a pastiche, as the director openly admits: probably my least favourite film form after pornography. I have read and heard differing opinions and I suspect that people’s enjoyment will depend on their knowledge of and acquaintance with the Silent Cinema, which the film attempts to recreate. For me it was just ‘off-kilter’, that slight exaggeration which is so common in pastiche.
The basic plot is familiar, going back to the 1932 film What Price Hollywood! However, in keeping with the director’s interests in film language, codes and genres, there are sizeable chunks of plot that reminded one of Citizen Kane (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Most of all, because it is a romantic comedy, there are frequent references to Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
The film was shot on 35 mm colour stock and then converted to black and white: it uses title cards for dialogue and plot information and there is an accompanying music track. At times it is very inventive, one pleasure is the use of sound rather than music for particular sequences. However, the cinema screening uses the DCP format, and I found the transfer to this retained the harder edges of that format, so that the black and white cinematography looks far too sharp for most examples of silent film. Likewise the acting, which is pretty effective, is just a shade too mannered. The film is set at the end of the Silent Era in the late 1920s and by this time Hollywood had developed an acting style that was less melodramatic and appeared more naturalistic. However, the major weakness for me was the accompanying music. This is not in the contemporary style, but neither is it in the style of 1920s accompaniment: in fact it reminded me most of 1950s radio music, rather anachronistic. The best musical moments were when the film used original recordings: an Ellington number, a 1930s rendition of Pennies From Heaven, and also at one point a solo piano.
As you might expect there are numerous references to the characters of the Silent Cinema and to its films. Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks all get a nod: the last-named actually has his The Mark of Zorro (1920) excerpted in this film. And there are comic routines modelled on gags from the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In that sense the film is well researched, and the design of settings and costumes and props is very well done. In fact, so much is familiar that one cannot remember all the references, which I assume, are intended. We are in the transition from the Silent to the Sound era in Hollywood, and this aspect is well reconstructed and dramatised.
I think the film is going to be very successful. My major reservation is that, as with the use of early film on television in the 1960s and 1970s, the film will shape people’s expectations of the experience of silent film viewing as less than accurate. And since we live in decades where it is easier to see early film classics than in the past that might be a hindrance and a pity.