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Tangents on a French Theme, Part II: "The Artist" as Assimilationist Manifesto

"The Artist": English spoken veess plezzhur.
by Alex Paquin

Until last year, Mel Brooks' 1976 "Silent Movie" was arguably the most recent mainstream commercial silent film (unless one wants to consider Guy Maddin mainstream). Predictably, a silent made years after the advent of sound could only be self-referential and heavily ironic; "Silent Movie" is therefore about a modern-day producer trying to make a silent film by attracting famous stars. One celebrity who turns him down is the mime Marcel Marceau, who, contacted by telephone, has the only word spoken in the film: "Non!". In another ironic twist, this makes "Silent Movie" more of a French film than the darling of the French film industry, "The Artist".

Silent Movie, which dealt in slapstick, probably the most palatable silent genre for modern audiences, and did not pursue the gimmick to the extent of using black and white, won no awards; but the melodrama of The Artist, inserted in a Golden Age of Hollywood story that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences typically relish, obtained five Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. When the nominations, ten in total, were announced, the following appeared on the website of the cultural services of the French Embassy in the United States:

"As a black and white, largely silent film, The Artist is an unusual contender, seen as a risky bet when The Weinstein Company chose to bring it to the U.S., the film has paid off handsomely drawing crowds and almost unanimous critical praise. Along with The Pianist in 2002, it is one of only two French films nominated for Best Picture, and if Hazanavicius’ film is selected it will be the first French film to win the award."

One wishes that French officials were aware of their country's film history. If we accept that The Pianist qualifies as French, The Artist is the fourth French film nominated for the regular Best Picture award, as those little-known pictures Grand Illusion and Z made the shortlist in 1938 and 1969, respectively. In this we can see the greater irony of twenty-first-century French culture: the two films which are mentioned are French-produced, whereas the two that are missing are also films in French.

Welcome to the era of post-French French culture.

As it were, there is no better film for heralding this era than The Artist, in which a silent Hollywood actor is reluctant to make the transition to sound, which we first assume is for artistic reasons (hence the title); we later discover, however, that his opposition is due to a thick French accent that would destroy his career in American talking films. Some critics likened The Artist's protagonist, George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), to John Gilbert, another suave silent star who quenched with the bottle his failure to make the transition to talkies, but context makes the comparison impossible: Gilbert's voice, inasmuch as it can be judged from his sound films, was clear and even pleasant, and the decline of his career was due to either studio politics or a change in public tastes, perhaps both. A more apt comparison would be to the numerous foreigners in Hollywood who could not adapt and had to return home to find work in motion pictures. For Valentin, this would have meant returning to France and capitalizing on his fame as a Hollywood star to resume his career; yet The Artist does not even mention the existence of a French film industry, nor the Hollywood success, albeit limited, of French actors after the advent of sound. The Artist instead portrays a man who, despite a fleeting comeback, is now failing in Hollywood because of his French accent and has nothing to return to, even though he has no reason to stay in the United States; in this film, it is Hollywood or bust.

One might argue that this omission was necessary to maintain the element of surprise regarding Valentin's objection to sound; this, however, does not explain why director Michel Hazanavicius' inevitable allusions to other films are predominantly, if not entirely, American. According to an Indiewire article, Hazavanicius was inspired by six films: Underworld, The Unknown, Sunrise, City Girl, The Crowd and City Lights, a fair selection, but one entirely made up of American films. As for the plot, The Artist is an amalgam of A Star is Born (a melodrama about an actor whose career peters out while that of his wife takes off) and Singin' in the Rain (Arthur Freed's paean to his career as an execrable lyricist), with a protagonist equal parts Gilbert and Fairbanks until he turned into Fred Astaire without warning. Passing references to Citizen Kane and other (mostly sound) films are made, most infamously to Vertigo, thanks to Kim Novak's accusations of "rape". Clearly, Hazanavicius knew his classics -- his American classics. The Artist, at best, is a half-hearted pastiche that does not really understand the appeal of silent films; at worst, it takes at face value the myth the American film industry has woven about itself. What it understands perfectly, however, is that the French film industry has long since capitulated before Hollywood.

There is nothing particularly new to this. Hollywood has had a long tendency of making foreign-language remakes in a manner more palatable to the American public, and, to paraphrase a certain former American president, the United States is a country made up of people who read nothing but lips; hence a foreign-language film, whether subtitled or dubbed, is of no interest to them. But the French, not content to merely let Hollywood buy remake rights to their films, perfected the technique of remaking them in English themselves.

There is not really anything inherently wrong with English-language remakes, except for the ensuing tendency of the Hollywood version supplanting the original, which might as well cease to exist. The most literal case of this might well have been Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lčve (1939), known in English as Daybreak. It is a classic, one of the masterpieces of poetic realism, and features one of the great performances of Jean Gabin. We might never have known; if RKO had successfully carried out its plans, it would have destroyed all the prints to make way for the glorious American remake, The Long Night (1947), directed by Anatole Litvak and produced by the Hakim brothers, French film producers going after the Hollywood market. "The Long What?" you ask? Exactly.

The opening narration proudly sets the action in Anytown, U.S.A.:

"This town here is Youngstown, Ohio. This is Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This is Gary, Indiana. This is... well, actually it doesn't matter very much, since our story might occur anywhere, since it's a story about some average human beings living in an average American town such as this, somewhere near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line."

Anywhere, as long as it is set in the United States, land of apple pie, Kate Smith, the Star-Spangled Banner, and happy endings -- like that of The Long Night; the original, in comparison, ended with an accidental murderer happily shooting himself in a house besieged by policemen.

The Long Night reportedly lost a million dollars, but the lesson was not learned, and the long night of French cinema became a smooth routine by the eighties, exemplified by Francis Veber; a Veber original was only as good as its American remake, which he sometimes wrote and/or directed himself. (1989's Three Fugitives, for example, was a Veber-directed American remake of a Veber film.) The trend was set with his first directorial effort, Le Jouet, the story of a newspaper magnate who buys his spoiled son a human toy in the person of a lowly journalist; six years later, the American adaptation (without direct involvement from Veber) came out. Whereas the Veber version, starring the so-white-he-looks-sickly Pierre Richard, was a comedy for adults with an intermittent discussion of class and an ambiguous ending (in which Richard's character is still an unemployed loser), the American-set remake, The Toy, starring Richard Pryor in the same part, was a film with things to say about race (and routinely accused of racism), and capped, as usual, with a happy ending.

It did not really matter whether a French film could realistically be adapted to the American market; just watch Just Visiting if you need an example. This was a French-made American remake of a 1993 box office success, Les Visiteurs, about a medieval count and his squire sent to the present day, not a masterpiece by any means, but a dumb popular film that at least worked on some level. A sequel was released, with another film planned to complete the trilogy, but the producers dropped the third film to chase the American dream. The remake had the same stars (Jean Reno and Christian Clavier) and the same director, but naturally, to please the Americans, it could never be set in present-day France, so the script was adapted to make the two time travelers reappear in the count's room, rebuilt in Chicago. Why Chicago? Because John Hughes worked on the screenplay, that's why. It scrapped the most interesting character, now superfluous (the squire's descendent who had bought the count's castle and turned it into a hotel), and reduced the jokes to the level of offering after-dinner mints fresh from a restaurant's urinals. It flopped in the United States; repackaged as Les Visiteurs en Amérique, it also flopped in France, and the original third film was never made. But the ending was even happier. In the original, the squire ended up with a white-trash lady companion; in the remake, he got Tara Reid.

What could be worse than constantly remaking French films to please American audiences that tend to remain elusive? A few months ago -- therefore, long after The Artist was released -- the answer was provided by one Joann Sfar, a French comic book artist who turned to filmmaking: the French, he said, should simply make the originals in English:

"If we prop up the French language, we do not defend French cinema. Some films must be in French. Others, when they have an international ambition, when they can help us make our country known, can speak English, which is not the language of the Americans. It is the language of cinema."

To him, it was all a question of money -- larger budgets, more visibility, better box office returns -- and the high price to pay to achieve this did not seem to bother him at all. Besides, if all it takes is a French director working in English, the likes of René Clair and Marcel Varnel were already doing it nearly eighty years ago; yet nobody would go so far as to claim that The Ghost Goes West or Oh, Mr. Porter!, both made in England, are French films -- they are British films, based on British sensibilities, directed by Frenchmen, nothing more. After them, a director like Henri Verneuil made categorization more complicated with international films including Hollywood and French actors, such as Night Flight from Moscow, starring Henry Fonda and Yul Brynner as well as Philippe Noiret, which alternated freely between English and French (and even a bit of Russian by Brynner) as needed. Then it was The Pianist being considered a French film because it had French backing and was directed by the naturalized Roman Polanski. And today, it's a French crew doing a silent in the purest Hollywood tradition. Sfar, naturally, mentioned The Artist as an ideal example of a French film that did well abroad:

"The Artist and The Intouchables are a lesson from which nobody wants to draw conclusions. The producers of these two films should publicly tell of the difficulty they had in making these works and their interlocutors' lack of vision. By their resounding success, and by the nightmare of their financing, these two films should encourage certain institutions to question themselves."

What he conveniently forgets is that the second film, The Intouchables (also released as Untouchable), a comedy about an old rich paralyzed man and his black caretaker, was regarded by French critics as standard commercial fare at best, decently made, but not ambitious. Americans, in comparison, seemed to take their cue from the review by Variety's Jay Weissberg, who let it be known that the film itself was untouchable: "Though never known for their subtlety, French co-helmers/scripters Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have never delivered a film as offensive as "Untouchable," which flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens."

Any discussion of racism in The Intouchables will have to take into account both its support by at least one French black leader and the vituperative reaction of the grand old man of the French far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who saw in it a metaphor for an invalid France requiring the support of immigration. But the Americans aren't interested in that; they'd rather object, using American criteria, to a foreign film which does not even seek to address American important issues of the day. But as usual, nobody in the USA cares about what the French think about a film set in France when all that matters is what offends Americans in what way just so they can tell the rest of the world what films ought not to be made. I have no doubt that an American-made Intouchables would have looked entirely different -- we may soon find out for ourselves, as The Weinstein Company has secured the remake rights -- but one can just imagine the limitations the French would have faced in their treatment of the material if their primary market had been the United States. In other words, the dismissal of the French language would have been but the first step to transatlantic success; the last one might well have been the transfer of the whole affair to Anytown, USA, in an attempt to cleanse it of any remaining trace of Frenchness that may have been, even if offered in English, too unfamiliar to a people notorious for its self-satisfied insularity.

Sfar's linguistic hoisting of the white flag would been more understandable if his ambitions had been confined to filming Stuff Blowing Up 3, a market already cornered by Luc Besson, or even American subjects; but no, Sfar advocated filming in English because he believed the only mass-market French pictures produced today are films for children like Asterix, whereas he wanted to film French literature by Romain Gary, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Flaubert, among others. Never did he seem to ponder whether there is a demand in the United States or the English-speaking world for such adaptations. He cited Universal's financial contribution to his film on Serge Gainsbourg, but to what travesty would this have led if he had shot it in English? What notoriety does Gainsbourg -- no, not Ginsburg -- have in that language? Have Americans ever heard of Gary -- no, not the one in Indiana? And will good old Harvey Weinstein loosen the purse-strings for an adaptation of Journey to the End of Night once he is made aware of what Céline -- no, not the tacky French-Canadian singer who conveniently performs in English -- also wrote about Jews?

What is on display here is the "if Hollywood could make The Life of Emile Zola and win Oscars for it, so can we" mentality, which is likely to lead, if it's to something French at all, to a mushy Frenchness that one could hardly distinguish from what Hollywood was making, strictly ersatz, always period, and found in lethal dosage in musicals, especially those adapted from literature. (Although more than 50 years old, Gigi is a perfect example of this Hollywood fluff, but the new British-made adaptation of Les Misérables, the musical of course, may supersede it; at least the older film had French actors playing the leads.) It does not really have anything to say about France, or history, or, for that matter, anything else. It is a Tradition of Quality 2.0 mixed with American attraction at its most naive; at least Stuff Blowing Up 3 would have made no claim to artistic merit.

Where does The Artist fit in all of this? The Artist is more than just a film about selling out; it's practically a guide as to how to do it. Beneath the novelty of the silent film lies the more sinister message that since silent films are no longer made except, paradoxically, as novelty items, it's the language that must go. From the perspective of a post-French French culture, The Artist makes sense: George Valentin would have no French film industry to which he could return, as it would have switched to the production of English-language films to chase American dollars, probably in vain. A few French actors might have prolific careers in this industry, as a few did in Hollywood in the past, playing parts where Frenchness is required, but Jean Gabin, to mention just one, never had much of an English-language career even when circumstances in Europe forced him to leave France. Gabin, in English, was just not Gabin, and he looks both ordinary and out of place in Moontide, the only Hollywood film not intended as Allied propaganda in which he appeared; who knows what other famous French actors would have fallen through the cracks if they had been forced to shoot in English?

But what or who may fall through the cracks has never been a major preoccupation of the legions of world-flatteners who extol globalization (and "universality") and have little patience for linguistic differences, let alone for borders and nation-states. Yet even as globalization proceeds unabated, the Anglosphere -- as the English-speaking world now self-importantly calls itself -- has remained notoriously insular; it is estimated that only three percent of books published in the United States are translations, and even recent foreign-language Nobel Prize winners have suffered from the lack of availability of their works in English. It has even been suggested that what is available in translation is, if we exclude the classics, what can serve the Anglosphere in one way or another.

Meanwhile, Tsedal Neeley, a professor at one of those Anglospheric places of great influence, the Harvard Business School, has written about two foreign multinational companies mandating the use of English to their entire workforce. The first was a Japanese company that imposed what it elegantly called "Englishnization"; the second, an unidentified large French company of 210,000 employees with only 40% of its workforce outside of France, vowed to become English-speaking-only within two years. Neeley's work goes through the possible consequences for employees without sufficient proficiency in English, but the message is clear and entirely predictable from someone at a business school: the trend is inevitable, and it must not be fought:

"Adopting a common mode of speech isn’t just a good idea; it’s a must, even for an American company with operations overseas, for instance, or a French company focused on domestic customers. Imagine that a group of salespeople from a company’s Paris headquarters get together for a meeting. Why would you care whether they all could speak English? Now consider that the same group goes on a sales call to a company also based in Paris, not realizing that the potential customer would be bringing in employees from other locations who didn’t speak French. This happened at one company I worked with. Sitting together in Paris, employees of those two French companies couldn’t close a deal because the people in the room couldn’t communicate. It was a shocking wake-up call, and the company soon adopted an English corporate language strategy."

Just imagine how embarrassing it must be to send people to France and realize that the people there speak French! The possibility of state legislation is never taken into account, nor are the reasons for morally objecting to working in an English-only environment in a foreign-language country. The assimilationist forces are on the march, demanding submission to the international language of business; and the French, who may be tempted to resist because of their proud cultural heritage, are instead encouraged to heed George Valentin's immortal words, a servile motto for the age: "Veess plezzhur".

Part Three: Gamer culture does "The Three Musketeers".

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originally posted: 12/13/12 13:16:14
last updated: 02/17/13 22:02:17
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