Hollywood is a windfall business. Stars are easily born, but once the the cracks in their public image start to show, careers can evaporate in 24 frames per second. This scenario describes many of the silent-era stars stripped of their powerful stature by the invention of talkies in the late 1920s. The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s beguiling new silent film about these iconic personalities dumbfounded by the sound revolution, tap dances through the end of an era with effortless panache. Striking black-and-white cinematography and brilliant flourishes of sound amid an otherwise silent landscape give The Artist its stylistic identity, but this story of evolution and adaptation is all about the power of on-screen chemistry.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a titanic personality, hamming it up in adventure films and real life with equal measure. Despite his endless charisma, George’s eyes reveal hints of loneliness, further confirmed during a Citizen Kane-esque montage of cold-shouldered breakfasts with his wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Always accompanied by a tenacious Boston terrier, his co-star in all situations, George bumps into an aspiring young actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) while leaving a packed theater premiere. Their initial meeting spins into a feature-length flirtation of knowing glances, charming asides, and fateful disappointments, a dual character arc that aligns with the technological changes taking place in cinema. Classic Hollywood music becomes a crucial confidant for the characters, magnifying Dujardin’s welling eyes and Bejo’s lovely smile during key close-ups.
Hazanavicius revels in the grace of old-school Hollywood cinema, even during the darker moments where George’s star persona crashes into the combative realities of stifling audio. An absolutely brilliant dream sequence corners George through a flurry of ambient sound that momentarily disorients the soundtrack with pummeling vibrations. References to classic film history pop up in nearly every composition, and I found the use of sparkling marquees and fictional film titles (used to parallel character emotion) a joyous treasure map to follow. Likewise, George and Pepper are constantly searching for the right way to fall in love, and the film traces their own path through the ebbs and flows of film history. The Artist paints a crossroads between the deafening silence of the past and the potential madness of an audible future. It turns out both sides represent an overreaction to some kind of change. Together, George and Pepper swoon under the harsh studio lights, and their smiling faces and crackling voices remind us that no matter the coming storm, there’s always a future in cinema.
The warm glow of classical Hollywood looks positively solar compared to the constricting and restrained coldness of Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. The title refers to the various names Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) adopts living by the strict code of a cult leader named Patrick (John Hawkes) and his followers on a communal farm in the Catskills. Strict gender lines are drawn from the very beginning, with Patrick and his male devotees eating the best food first, letting the women partake only when the first group has cleared out. After the austere and strictly paced opening, Martha suddenly escapes the farm without much resistance, calling her estranged sister, Lucy (Sara Paulson), for help. Martha takes refuge in Lucy’s posh lakeside home in Connecticut, and the quiet of the locale only conjures up traumatic memories from her time with Patrick. We know the distance from both points is always on Martha’s mind; one always seems to be closing in on the other.
Martha Marcy May Marlene glides through memories as if they were raindrops evaporating before they hit the ground. Durkin merges crucial flashbacks with Martha’s current attempts to reconcile her past traumas in a “normal” setting. The process becomes constricting and fruitless, finally made impossible by Lucy’s inability to break through Martha’s psychological walls. But the film isn’t about redemption or religious awareness, but the overwhelming reach of manipulation. There isn’t one scene that doesn’t feel seeped in dread, and the devil’s footprints are evident on every charming folk song or promise of love.
Durkin and the very talented cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes establish singular and wrenching moments instead of full on set pieces. The details of a facial expression, the sudden explosion of violence, and the consistency of audio tones are all parts of Patrick’s platform of control. The slow camera movements bare equally measured zooms, closing in on characters until the lull of ambient noise drowns out all indicators of life on the screen. Like Gerardo Naranjo’s equally impressive Miss Bala, Martha Marcy May Marlene is about the domination of female perception. Since Martha herself is still trying to work through what might be nightmare or reality, it’s difficult to understand how pervasive Patrick’s impact has been on her until the final moments of the film. When the story’s long-gestating simmer finally comes to a boil, Durkin holds on his heroine’s face one last time, leaving the viewer with a stone-cold snapshot of pure horror. There will be shivers.
My first impression of Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance is simple befuddlement. The numbing tale of a turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian brothel trying to survive economic distress and many other inherent job dangers, plays like a Howard Hawks remake of Eyes Wide Shut. The specific functions of the women’s work schedule, methods, training, and physical maintenance makes the film tick, demystifying the more salacious moments and rendering them just another part of the glossy parlor game. Modern blues and rock songs show up on the soundtrack, and during the nutty opening credit sequence, connecting the period setting with the present-day long before that theme becomes reality. Bonello’s series of aesthetic paradoxes are as obvious as they are enthralling.
The collective of women suffer large and small indignities because of their job, the worst being a heinous face disfigurement that becomes the film’s central feminist symbol. It’s interesting to see the many ways male characters force the women to morph into fantastical entities: The disfigured prostitute is nicknamed “The Woman Who Laughs,” while another girl is transformed into a doll for her customer’s enjoyment. Ethereal and surreal scenes like these, including a revenge-by-panther sequence that is entirely fitting, jump-start the film’s heart. But Bonello fails to connect the dots with a cohesive cinematic statement about much of anything, and even if that’s the point (I don’t think it is), House of Tolerance teeters on the edge of insanity until there’s nowhere to go but into the void. These workingwomen aren’t martyrs, just professionals slowly dying from their “passionate” customers. Tears of joy aren’t suitable for the staunchly loyal and suffering women. Bonello’s shocking alternative is even more disheartening and literal.