Thursday, December 22, 2011

Watching "The Artist", feeling the "Vertigo"

Last night Elizabeth and I caught a SIFF Cinema screening of The Artist, which is already appearing on a number of 2011 Top 10 lists, occasionally in the #1 slot.

I found it attractively shot, charming, and enjoyable most of the time, though it didn't Wow me as much as I anticipated given the Oscar-buzzy hype and the lustrous trailer (see below). The story is too slight and too reliant on trite melodrama conventions (and big lifts from Singin' in the Rain), which fit the time period but don't, in my opinion, fully provide sufficient substance. The screenplay is curiously thin even given the faux-"silent film" format — partly, I think, due to a number of missed opportunities, especially in the second half. (And Penelope Ann Miller needs some stern words with her agent.)

On the other hand, the three leads — Jean Dujardin as a Douglas Fairbanks-like silent screen star washed up with the advent of the "talkies," Bérénice Bejo as the bit player who achieves Hollywood stardom, and Uggie the dog as the loyal pooch who saves the day — are marvelous and must be signed for a remake of The Thin Man, pronto. Elizabeth and I had already come to love Dujardin from the two French "OSS 117" spy-film spoofs (also directed by Michel Hazanavicius and featuring his wife Bejo), and now we learn the guy can dance Gene Kelly-style too. Yet it's Bejo who's the breakout star for me. She held her own as the co-lead with Dujardin, while doing it, as they say, backwards and in high heels. Together they have an easy chemistry, and I hope the success of The Artist means we'll be seeing more of both of them, singly and together, for years. And seriously, Uggie gives one of the best canine performances in decades.

As a pastiche of the black-and-white "silent" cinema of yore, The Artist is appealing and good-looking (though hardly accurate-looking), with some clever touches. However, the conceit wears thin without further narrative oomph starting around the half-way mark.

Trumping much of the good stuff on display, though, is one peculiar element that sore-thumbed a key scene for me: Late in the story, when Dujardin's George Valentin has hit rock bottom, having lost his career and his chance at true love, he wanders Hollywood like the Ghost of Movies Past. What jarred me during it is the choice for its musical scoring — Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d’Amour" from Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo (YouTubed here).

Now, I may be just a big ol' film geek, but it's not as if Vertigo is some obscure forgotten film, or that Herrmann's work isn't one of Hollywood's more famous and distinctive movie scores. I love Herrmann's music in Vertigo and others, but it threw me right out of The Artist as I was sitting there asking, almost out loud, "What the hell is music from Vertigo doing here?" Instead of joining George Valentin in his cinelicious despondency, I had visions of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak dancing through my head.

By my lights, that particular motif doesn't wed itself naturally to the scene in The Artist. It's hardly an ideal bit of scoring for the moment. For one thing, using it is the very definition of uninspired, even in our pop culture of mashups and creative appropriation (which I agree can be artful and inspired).

Secondly, the piece is distracting as it brings to mind a real (and better) movie made nearly 30 years after the story's setting.

Thirdly and most damningly, it's almost mawkish as it tries hard to make us feel something, thus kneecapping any earned feeling the scene may elicit. To me, it felt as though someone was trying to tap my emotional memory of Vertigo and hijack it for the scene in The Artist, rather than crafting the scene so that it generated the emotional layering on its own.

During those minutes of being kicked out of the movie's narrative, my mind wandered. I was curious whether Herrmann's "Scene d’Amour" landed there initially as some temporary scratch track filler that Hazanavicius decided he liked well enough, or else using Herrmann's music was less expensive than rescoring the scene with an original piece.

So when I got home I did what people do when disconcerted in the 21st century: I googled. Here's what I found:

A.O. Scott's New York Times review notes the Vertigo lift as one of The Artist's built-in cineaste references.

According to the film's English press kit (PDF), Hazanavicius played mood music from vintage movies on the set:

The shoot being silent, did you give your actors much direction during the takes?

What I did was play music on the set and it literally carried them. So much so that at the end, they couldn’t do without it! I played mostly Hollywood music of the '40s and '50s: Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Frank Waxman, but also George Gershwin, Cole Porter... I used SUNSET BOULEVARD a lot but I also played THE WAY WE WERE and even Philippe Sarde's music for THE THINGS OF LIFE. It's a beautiful melody and I knew Jean has a particular relationship with that theme. I didn't warn him the first time I played it and I knew that by playing it on set I'd trigger something during the take. That’s exactly what happened. I did the same with Bérénice when she arrives in hospital; I played the theme from LAURA, which she loves.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Laura Emerick's 'The Artist' is director's love letter to early Hollywood includes this unhelpful quote from Hazanavicius:
"The 'Vertigo' music is here to help shape the emotional structure of the climax.... But it's also heard in the finale [of 'Vertigo'], and the theme worked perfectly here. It helps to create a sense of resolution."

Finally, an A.V. Club interview with Hazanavicius addresses the lift directly:

AVC: Like your OSS comedies, The Artist has a Hitchcock influence—you use Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score for a pivotal moment in the movie. Was that intentional?
MH: For The Artist, the music from Vertigo came in post. I guess all the directors in France are influenced by Hitchcock, because he’s the perfect visual director, in my eyes. So I guess, yes, certainly he was an influence, but it wasn’t a reference. I mean, I wasn’t watching Hitchcock movies, I was watching silent movies. But when I was writing the script, I was listening to a lot of classical composers, and there was a lot of music from movies in that, and the music from Vertigo was one of them. So when we were editing, I went back to the script and told the composer, "There are nine narrative blocks where we need nine big scores." So I gave him all the points of what kind of emotion the music should have. And for that particular scene you're speaking of, I wanted something special. I wanted it to be the final movement. I wanted a slow love theme, and the music from Vertigo just fit perfectly. And it's not Herrmann's score, in fact, but the score re-orchestrated by Elmer Bernstein [from 1992].
After seeing that sequence cut together, our composer [Ludovic Bource] used that style as an influence for the rest of the music he created for other parts of the movie. I'll admit it's strange to have the music from another movie in your movie, but finally I chose to accept it.

Okay. So there's the answer. Not a very satisfying answer, but at least he addressed the question. I too love Herrmann's music and if I were writing a darkly moody love scene I'd have it in the background too. But it is indeed "strange" and it did toss me out of a key moment in The Artist. I recovered, of course, even if it did niggle at me until I got home and sought answers to my burning question online.

So file this post under Curiosity, qualified satisfaction of.