Notes Of A Storyteller: Reviewing “The Artist” and “A Separation”

This week, I’ve had the chance to see two films that have been turning heads for the last few weeks.

“The Artist” won an Oscar or two recently. It’s a silent film and it plunges you right back into the 1930’s, and all the Hollywood nostalgia that comes with it. Jean Dujardin protrays silent film actor George Valentin, who watches his career crash and burn with the advent of talking pictures and a pretty young actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo).

This might have been a very entertaining, sentimental and hokie film. But the story decided to go much deeper than that. We get out share of fine musical numbers, cigar-chomping studio executives, and charismatic beautiful people.

But we also get a visceral journey through the pride of George Valentin. Jean Dujardin chilled me at times with his acting. He is called to portray a man who is alive with enthusiasm and vanity. He loves acting, both in front of a camera and in front of other people. When times begin to change, he withdraws within himself. This leads him down a spiral of anger, isolation and cheap gin that made me realize quickly that I was not watching a typical silent movie.

Berenice is one of the beautiful actresses I have ever seen on a screen. Period. There is a stifling cliche in Hollywood that the sexiest woman is the one who dresses like a prostitute. Berenice transcends such cheap gimmicks. When she smiles at you, you see the force of a dynamic and truly attractive personality beaming like the sun. She is practically irresistible.

Her character is a bold and fearless actress; she rises with talking movies, but she still keeps up a growing friendship with Mr. Valentin, the actor who gave her some tips when she was starting out. Her devotion to him becomes greater and greater. To my regret, there’s a busted marriage thrown in with that devotion, and the consequences of it aren’t explored. The devotion also disregards some very selfish actions by Mr. Valentin; the consequences of ignoring those aren’t explored either. Then again, I wonder if this is the sort of film where such things are meant to be explored.

What is undisputed is that “The Artist” finds a happy ending that is truly happy. George Valentin finds a way out of his cycle of self-deprecation, and he finds both pain and new happiness when he does it. This is the first movie in a while that has put an authentic grin on my face. Move aside, Hallmark Channel. This the way that “feel-good” movies should be done.

“A Seperation” took much longer to me to warm up to. It’s an Iranian drama that’s been picking up critical praise all over the place. For the first quarter of it, I felt myself getting bored. All I saw was a shaky camera following a quietly dysfunctional family through a quietly frustrating existence. The foreign dialogue also made things difficult (there were English subtitles). I was starting to get restless and in a single fluid moment I was suddenly drawn in. I can’t tell you the exact moment; I don’t know it myself.

All I know is that for the next hour and a half, I was moved with rage and pity by one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Nader and Simin (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami, both in compelling performances) get a divorce because Simin wants to leave Iran. Nader has a father who is neck-deep in Alzheimer’s; he wants to stay in Iran and so does their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). This sets off a series of escalating events that  involve murder, cultural/religious tenets, and excess of pride. This is not only a separation, but a spider’s web. The plight of this family, trapped by their society and the consequences of their actions (and their inactions), disgusted me.

The shots are simply brilliant. There’s nothing out of the ordinary; in fact, the picture quality was a little grainy. This is what gave it its punch. When the first of several long, tense silences come on, you are going to feel them from the top of your spine to the bottom. I felt at times like I was sitting in that law court in Iran, listening to these grown adults snapping back and forth about murder and blood money.

If you see it, be ready to close your eyes for a minute. It is your only defense. This film is merciless.

***

Keep an eye on this blog over the weekend. I’ll be reporting from the Tucson Festival of Books. Some interesting people are dropping by. I’ll see if I can get some juicy pictures for you.

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