Don’t speak!

I was almost speechless after this rare cinematic treat at the weekend. We had tickets to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc – or Jeanne d’Arc lidelse og død – on the big screen at the BFI Southbank in London, with live musical accompaniment and the original Danish intertitles to add to the authentic evocation of the 1920s experience. Not everyone’s idea of a big Saturday night out in the year 2012, I realise, although the auditorium at NFT1 was encouragingly packed.

This was showing as part of the BFI’s Sight & Sound Poll Winners season, as it was voted number 9 in the magazine’s most recent ten-year critics’ poll, as discussed here. Because it’s silent, and foreign, and black and white, it’s pushing against many prejudices to find a modern audience, but I’m lucky enough to have grown up at a time when silents – early Mack Sennett and Hal Roach comedies at any rate – were still shown on TV during the school holidays, so even though these curios were already 50 years old, I was exposed to them without prejudice.

That said, it’s unusual to be sat in a cinema watching one. I am coming relatively late to Dreyer (I’m never shy to admit my own latecomings – nothing worse than someone pretending to have seen something they haven’t), but was knocked out by Ordet, earlier this year, one of his later, sound films. My appreciation of his work has also been coloured by my growing love of modern Scandinavian cinema and TV, the ground laid by a longer-held love of Ingmar Bergman. Put it this way, I’m as used to hearing Danish speech these days as I am to hearing, say, French, or Spanish, or Italian, and that wasn’t always the case. Oddly, there is no Danish speech in Joan of Arc, as it’s a French film of a French story, featuring French actors, speaking in French. But with the intertitles in Danish, it retains the director’s origins. (The BFI notes state that this restoration is the closest yet to a replica of what the audience at the 1928 premiere in Copenhagen would have seen. Imagine!)

I wish I could credit the amazing pianist, but it wasn’t Neil Brand as listed in the BFI notes, as he was introduced as Steve something, and I can’t remember his surname. He also played flute while tickling the ivories at certain points, and made dramatic percussive noises on the piano strings too. Bravo! There is something uniquely thrilling about watching moving images soundtracked before your very ears. (I once saw Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman at the Cadogan Hall with a live orchestra and choir, and that was brought to life, in a completely different way.) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is an hypnotic experience; you’re watching predominantly close-ups of actors’ faces for most of the 96 minutes, arranged as if in monochrome Expressionist paintings.

It goes without saying that the actors in these early silent movies will have been stage-trained. And the demands of emoting onstage, at a distance from the audience, mean that silent movies often feel melodramatic, with actors over-emoting, and over-gesturing. As such, they can be an acquired taste. In silent movies, damsels in distress will often hold a fist up to their mouth and bite their knuckles, to convey fear and anxiety. There’s a lot of staring off camera, too. But Jeanne d’Arc is incredibly controlled, and restrained, and subtle. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, as the Maid of Orleans, is seen throughout, her amazing face filling the screen, usually at the same diagonal angle as the iconic image of Christ, but with tears streaming down her cheeks. Actually 35 at the time, although playing a 19-year-old, she reminded me of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, with her shorn hair and wide eyes.

The judges are grotesques; again, characterful old stage actors, one imagines, shot at Expressionistic angles, and, once again, filling the screen. (The famous playwright Antonin Artaud, he of the Theatre Of Cruelty, is also seen, as a monk.) The contrast between Falconetti’s smooth, wet skin and theirs – dry, wrinkled, fat, puffy – is stark. There is no doubt who’s the goodie, and who are the baddies in this film. The story concerns only her trial, and is based upon actual 15th century court documentation (which is shown at the beginning), and falls into three acts: the charges against her; the torture; and her execution at the stake. We all know the outcome, but – as with Mel Gibson’s heavy-handed, blood-soaked Passion Of The Christ – we are forced to endure the prologue to death right there with the accused. It’s powerful stuff.

Loaded with symbolism – much of it, to be fair, also sometimes heavy-handed – this is a sensory experience that pushes a lot of buttons. You’re swept along by the music: torrid, melancholy, sparing; by the imploring images: ugly, beautiful, exquisitely framed, the early tableaux giving way in the last act to crowd scenes and mayhem that you’re just not expecting; and by the sheer inevitability of the tragedy, postponed by administrative and legislative to-ing and fro-ing in the courtroom.

Sometimes, you watch a “classic” (or “an immortal screen classic”, as per the original poster), and you appreciate its historical importance, and are glad that you have seen it, but it’s a dry, academic, box-ticking exercise. With Dreyer, for me, it’s an experience to savour. There’s nothing antique about this film. It’s over 80 years old, and yet it moves and terrifies and manipulates with the same skill and artistic audacity as anything powered by digital technology or studio profligacy or – and here’s the point – endless dialogue.

More of this type of thing, please.

Mind you, can’t wait to see Looper.

Word of mouth

OK, it’s true, The Artist really is one of the films of the year. (“Film Of The Year!” say the posters.) I saw a preview this morning, at which I felt I was one of only a few critics seeing it for the first time. (Yes, hardened film critics are going back to see if for a second time – that’s how good it is.) Although it was premiered at Cannes in May, and has thus been seen by most of the big film critics, it’s released here on December 30, which is a risky marketing strategy as most things-of-the-year lists have already been compiled, including mine for Radio Times.

It is, in case you are in the dark, a silent movie, about the silent movie era. What an inspired idea. It comes from French director Michel Hazanavicius and is a French film. And yet, it is utterly international, as it has no dialogue. It’s all over the Golden Globe nominations (it was released in the States in November) and it will be subsequently all over the Oscar nominations, and the Baftas, never mind all those critics’ circles awards, and international equivalents. Why has everybody fallen head over heels with a black-and-white movie set in the 1920s and 30s that’s been painstakingly made to look like a movie made in the 1920s and 30s?

Well, there’s the artistry of the exercise. The look and feel of The Artist is utterly convincing. It is postmodern by its very nature – and there are one or two clever, metatextual touches, including an opening sequence in which the main character, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) plays a secret agent who is being tortured in order to make him talk – but on the whole it’s played as a sincere love letter to the silent form, and the silent age. Like Singin’ In The Rain, its rise-and-fall story is rooted in the difficult transition from silent movies to talkies, but it deals with this in a soundless way. With just period music – and one isolated, breathtaking transgression which I will not spoil – The Artist tells its simple story using visuals, “mugging” and traditional title cards (exquisitely rendered, of course).

Both Dujardin and his co-star Bérénice Bejo are delightful. They sing (although we can’t hear them), they dance, and they emote in that melodramatic, silent manner without making it seem false or hokey. There is no layer of irony here. You forget you’re watching a film made in the 21st century. Quite how they’re going to get young people into this film, I do not know. Maybe they won’t. I grew up watching silent movies, and black and white films, on TV as a kid, so have no prejudice against either. But I wonder if I am fortunate in that respect, as I don’t have to acclimatise to watch one on the big screen. People of a younger generation may need to. And may not wish to do so.

It’s sort of impossible to judge this audacious and original film against its contemporaries. I decided that Drive was my favourite film of the year, but you can’t compare it to The Artist. It’s a pointless exercise. This is by far the best silent movie of this year, or any year this century!

I understand Michale Hazanavicius is known for having made a series of French films spoofing the 60s spy genre. I can safely say that this is not a spoof. It is a loving tribute. And impossible not to love back. The critics, or some of them, actually applauded at this morning’s screening. That doesn’t happen. I truly hope that paying cinemagoers will help make it a hit. Not so that everybody starts making silent movies, but so that we broaden our horizons a bit in the digital age.