When Peppy Met George: The Year Of Loving Nostalgically

(Movies discussed in this post: Beginners, Certified Copy, Forget Me Not, One Day, Midnight In Paris, The Artist, The Future.)

I have two questions for you:

1) Have you ever been in love?

And, if so —

2) Was it quirky?

While real-life romances tend to be less droll, movie romances prefer to quirk until they can quirk no more. This usually requires a Meet Cute and a montage of dates much more imaginative than the average Chinese takeout and whatever’s on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Often, this is insufferable. Most romantic comedies are drearily formulaic affairs in which the characters behave nothing like actual human beings. For example, did you see New Year’s Eve? No, of course you didn’t. That’s because even the trailer made it obvious that this was a movie about sinister aliens wearing the faces of our favorite movie stars, but whose extra-terrestrial origins were obvious based on the fact that none of their storylines seemed relatable or plausible in any way.

Fortunately, the New Year’s Eves of 2011 are in the minority. Already films like Weekend and Like Crazy have taken a more pragmatic, 21st century-appropriate look at love (read about them here). But even the year’s more whimsical and — yes — quirky romances have exceeded expectations and provided another round of high-quality Cinematic Aphrodisiacs — i.e., good date movies. Now, I can’t speak much for anyone’s love lives off-screen, but cinematically speaking, it’s been an excellent year for romance.

Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris has been heralded a “return to form” for the prolific director, who has been better known for his misses than hits in the past couple decades (the excellent Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point standing out). And in a way, it is. Midnight In Paris is breezier and more playful than most of the director’s recent efforts, starring Owen Wilson as the Woody Allen stand-in (his laid-back surfer demeanor actually counterbalances the writer-director’s neuroses nicely, much to the world’s surprise). Wilson plays Gil, who is — this being a Woody Allen movie — a screenwriter, naturally; it’s a choice that doesn’t feel quite right on Owen Wilson, but let’s forgive it. Gil is engaged to Inez (has Allen made so many films he is running out of names for his protagonists?), who is like a grown-up Mean Girl fittingly played by Rachel McAdams. It’s obvious right away that Gil and Inez aren’t meant to be together — she’s, well, kind of a bitch. Midnight In Paris might have served itself better allowing some of McAdams’ natural winsome charms into the movie to round out this character, but we’re meant to dislike her and we do. Whole-heartedly.

Gil romantically professes his nostalgia for the Way Things Were as the couple visits Paris with her parents; she’d rather live in Malibu. (Bitch!) So Gil wanders off alone, and at the stoke of midnight, something very strange happens. An old-timey car pulls over and the anachronistically-dressed passengers inquire whether or not Gil would like to join them. Yes, he would, he says. And so do we. And so we do.

(If you know nothing about Midnight In Paris yet, you may want to see the film before reading on, since I had no idea what it was about when I first saw it. But if you’ve read anything about it or who plays who in it, then chances are you already know what I’m about to tell you.)

As it turns out, Gil has been transported back to the very Paris he has just romantically idealized — circa 1920’s. This version of Paris is like Disneyland for the cultured and literate — a place of wish-fulfillment where dreams come true. Gil easily brushes elbows with personalities like Cole Porter, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, and Ernest Hemingway, played magnificently by Alison Pill, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll, and others with just the right amount of winking at the audience. It probably goes without saying that these encounters are far away the movie’s highlight.Both Allen’s script and Wilson’s performance minimize his surprise at this, and time-travel angle in general — I suppose it’s not meant to be taken very seriously, but I wanted a bit more of Gil’s mind being blown by these magical happenings. (Instead, Wilson reacts with about the same level of amazement as if a buddy had just offered him some really great marijuana.) It’s great fun to see Gil return to present day Paris with Inez and Paul, the pompous know-it-all she worships (a deliciously obnoxious Michael Sheen), suddenly with quite a lot of knowledge about 1920’s Paris to put him in his place. During my initial viewing, I though Midnight In Paris might have fun with Gil dragging first Inez, then Inez and parents, then Paul back in time with him and proving them all wrong about their views on the past. Instead, the story takes a different route.

This is a Woody Allen film, after all — thus infidelity plays its part when Gil meets Adriana, a woman who is everything Inez is not (and who has dated most of the famous males in question). As played by the mesmerizing Marion Cotillard, Adriana is alluring — probably too alluring to fall for a guy like Gil, but when hasn’t Woody Allen used his films to fulfill masturbatory fantasies about insanely beautiful women going gaga over a nebbishy writer-type? In its final act, Midnight In Paris unfortunately overstates what would have been a nice subtext about how we romanticize the past at the cost of our present happiness; we really didn’t need this spelled out for us. Though a few of his more aggravating storytelling weaknesses are on full display here, Woody Allen’s latest is also a perfectly captivating trifle rife with charming touches, nicely timed to fit into a year that has quickly been dubbed The Year Of Cinematic Nostalgia. And when it comes to Meet Cutes, you don’t get much cuter than traveling all the way back to the Roaring Twenties to encounter the girl of your dreams.In fact, Europe (and Paris, in particular) has always seemed to inspire the greatest screen romances. Think of what Paris represents in Casablanca, or how much better Paris Je T’aime was than New York, I Love You. All Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had to do was walk through Paris and talk to make Before Sunset one of the best romances of the past decade, and Weekend and a good chunk of Like Crazy were set in England. They just do some things better over there, and falling in love appears to be one of them.

The little-seen Forget Me Not is one film that strives to follow in Before Sunset‘s talky footsteps, and halfway succeeds. It stars Ben Menzies and Genevieve O’Reilly and almost no one else; he is a musician, about kill himself when he hears a barmaid being harassed outside. He intervenes (Meet Cute alert!) and after some initial awkwardness, they decide to spend the rest of the night and morning together wandering throughout London: Before And After Sunrise. Both performers are strong enough to carry this dialogue-heavy movie and there is enough of interest that passes between them to sustain a good portion of the movie, including a little gem of a scene in which the two dance at a party where everyone is literally moving to their own beat (via individual iPods) so we only hear the collective noise they’re making, sans music.

Unfortunately, we’ve just seen this sort of thing done before, and slightly better, and what we find in Forget Me Not is ultimately (not sorry for punning) unmemorable. An eleventh-hour Memento-style reveal is fine, but unnecessary. It’s a good film — just not a particularly noteworthy one. It’ll likely just make you nostalgic to watch Before Sunset again.Also set in London is One Day, based on David Nicholls’ compulsively readable bestselling novel, centered around a clever gimmick: we check in on the same duo one day a year from 1988 onward, always July 15. They quickly go from strangers to BFFs with an obvious underlying attraction, and the story’s structure has a nice way of reminding us of how much can change in a year or two, though it may seem long and dreary while it’s happening. Emma (Anne Hathaway) is a shy but clever college grad who dreams of being a writer, but is stuck managing a terrible Mexican restaurant instead; Dexter (Jim Sturgess) is a charming cad with alcoholic tendencies who finds success (and humiliation) as an obnoxious TV host. Each of them have romances with other people that quite obviously don’t work, and the film’s best aspect is the way it explores how lives peak and valley in different ways for all of us, particularly in our twenties — and unlike the book, it’s Dexter who feels more like the protagonist here than Emma, since he’s got the most interesting character arc.

What was charming on the page is a bit cloying on-screen, however; the fact that so much of note happens on July 15 from year to year feels much more phony here than it did in the book, and since we have about 20 years to cover, few scenes get the breathing room necessary to have the impact they should. Emma, a terrific and very funny character in prose, is very average here, totally unremarkable. She’s not nearly as clever or vulnerable as Nicholls’ page-bound Emma, who had a self-depracating Bridget Jones quality that goes sorely missing in this film. I’ve thought Anne Hathaway was miscast since I first heard she was playing Emma, and while she’s at least acceptable here, I probably still agree with myself. As directed by the much better An Education‘s Lone Scherfig (who should have just called up Carey Mulligan to do this one, too), this movie is agreeable to a certain point as a romantic dramedy but loses its footing the more aged our protagonists become. Sturgess and Hathaway have excellent chemistry as friends but very bad chemistry as lovers, so when they finally do get together, you’re more likely to wince than cheer. They just seem romantically wrong for each other, and you know they’ll lose the friendly banter that their sexual tension creates so well.

Worst of all is the film’s final stretch, as it passes into weepy pass-me-the-Kleenex territory; I suppose it was inevitable, but this was also the weakest link in the book. Rachel Portman’s intrusive, self-important score sounds the death knell for whatever goodwill One Day had built for itself in this tritely tragic conclusion. Luckily, the film ends on a (surprise!) nostalgic note as we flash back to the carefree days of youth and glimpse our leads having much better chemistry than they ever do as grown-ups. One Day is quite faithful to its source material, but that doesn’t make it a particularly satisfying film for those of us who know how much more poignant the story is as a novel.For earned angst, European-style, there is Certified Copy — make that earned angst and then some. Set in Italy, the story follows an unnamed French woman (Juliette Binoche) who meets an English writer named James Miller (William Shimell) at a lecture on his new book, also called Certified Copy, in which he makes the controversial claim that a reproduction of a piece of artwork is just as valuable as the original piece — it’s the viewer’s response that gives it meaning. (Not exactly a Meet Cute, is it?) She disagrees (or at least plays devil’s advocate throughout the film). The film’s dialogue alternates fluidly between Italian, English, and French, as written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami — who is Iranian, of course. Even so, the film ends up feeling quite French in many ways.

It’s hard to say much about Certified Copy without spoiling it — the film contains quite a twist, but not of the “gotcha!” variety. I knew what it was before I went into it, and I’m glad I did. Otherwise, I might have spent the second half of Certified Copy desperately trying to figure out what I missed. Suffice to say, the film plays with us in a way quite unlike any film I’ve ever seen before; it’s an arthouse intellectual exercise, Before Sunset by way of M. Night Shyamalan. (Yes, the walking-and-talking-through-scenic-European-locations trope is once again on full display.)

Juliette Binoche is her usual marvelous self as the Unnamed Woman, conveying a vast array of emotions with her facial expressions. She barely needs to speak at all. Shimell, an opera singer in his first film, isn’t quite as engaging; he’s well-suited for the role, but James Miller is a difficult man to warm up to, and casting a slightly warmer actor may have helped this story feel truly two-sided (if it’s even meant to be). That’s a minor complaint with a fascinating film, though — James and his female companion are nearly as representational figures as the mother and father embodied by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree Of Life. In Malick’s film, they are “the way of man” and “the way of grace”; here, he is all head and she is all heart. It’s a sort of battle of the sexes, and we wonder: can these two ever happily coexist?

Certified Copy blatantly professes its themes; its characters are working them out in dialogue throughout the movie. In fact, the film is about little else, and yet it is rich with meaning and hard to fully take in after just one viewing. The end is a hall of mirrors with numerous “copies” of a couple in love popping up everywhere; as James and his companion discuss copies and originals, we see a series of brides and grooms on their wedding day, an older couple that is much more content than James and his ladyfriend currently are, an even older couple that wordlessly conveys that each other is the only thing they have left in the world. Does love depreciate as time goes on, becoming only a pale copy of itself? Do we destroy our relationships striving to keep them true to the original mold? Certified Copy‘s irony is that she wants a reproduction of the love she once had, while James is satisfied with the aging, perhaps evolving, original. All the while, they argue for the opposite stance in relation to James’ book. And in Binoche’s character, we find the echoes of nostalgia rattling around inside her, breaking her heart slowly and softly.Facing similar problems expressed quite differently are Sophie and Jason of The Future, written and directed by and starring Miranda July. This film takes quirky to a whole new level — Sophie (July) and Jason (The New Adventures Of Old Christine‘s Hamish Linklater) have such odd idiosyncrasies, it’s hard to imagine that there is a single other person in the world either of them could possibly settle down with. How quirky is their relationship? Well, for starters, the movie is narrated by a cat (also played by July) that the couple plans to adopt from a local pet shelter — but then soon find this responsibility overwhelming, which leads to the unraveling of their relationship.

On a story level, The Future doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen in a million such movies about lovers drifting apart from each other, often throwing some sort of infidelity into the mix. It’s the way The Future does it that makes it a strikingly compelling movie. The Future has some of the most bizarre and funniest dance sequences put to film in recent memory, worth the price of admission alone; and there is one long dream/fantasy sequence that has some of the best moments I saw in a film all year. It’s like a twee Mulholland Drive. Unfortunately, the more grounded aspects of the movie don’t hang together quite as well, mainly because it’s difficult to truly root for either of these weird people or their weird relationship. They’re watchable, yes — but likable? Not really. I fully recommend The Future, particularly for its most offbeat moments, but I came away from it appreciating the overall style and mood much more than I cared for the characters and story. The only character that moved me was the poor neglected kitty, which I must say, lends the film a brilliantly sobering ending.

And if The Future does not quite satisfy your talking-pet-in-an-indie-romcom needs, perhaps Beginners will do. Instead of being narrated by a cat, Beginners occasionally features comic subtitles from an adorable dog (more to express what our protagonist projects the dog to be thinking than as an actual expression of the dog’s inner life). The adorable dog in question belongs to Oliver (Ewan McGregor), an artist who inherits the pup after his father passes away from cancer. From here, Beginners tells two stories.

One is that of his father, Hal, who finally owned up to being gay at the age of 76 and completely revamped his life in the last four years he lived before cancer caught up to him. In the other story, following Hal’s death, Oliver meets a woman named Anna really, really cute — at a costume party, where he is dressed as Sigmund Freud and she has laryngitis. Thus their entire first date is a series of gestures and scribbled notes, and the rest of their romance shares a similar whimsy. Beginners moves nimbly back and forth through time, also filling in Oliver’s childhood with his unhappy mother (Mary Kay Place). The film never states it, but the title suggests that only now is Oliver actually “beginning” his adulthood — because his parents have died. We get the bittersweet sense that had Hal not died, Oliver may not have been mature enough to stick things out with Anna.

Ewan McGregor shows a similar genuine, lovelorn quality that he brought to last year’s underappreciated I Love You Phillip Morris. After a series of very blah roles throughout the mid 2000’s in which I got a little tired of him, it’s good to see he’s back to taking stronger roles in more interesting movies. Inglourious Basterds‘ fabulous Melanie Laurent (in my eyes, the best thing about that movie) turns in another delightful turn as Anna; like Oliver, we have a hard time not falling head over heels for her. Anna shares a few qualities with the manic pixie dream girls who plague some indie romances, but she’s also a fully realized character on her own, with her own fears and pains and insecurities. It’s actually pretty rare to find a love interest who has more than just the stock trappings — a fear of commitment, an ethereal wild streak — that create “problems” for the protagonist to overcome.

And if Oliver and Anna’s quirky romance reminds us a little of the oddball pairing in The Future, that’s no coincidence — this film’s writer/director, Mike Mills, is married to that film’s writer/director, Miranda July. Beginners is very obviously a personal film for Mills, whose own father came out of the closet late in life in a similar fashion, and that’s why the entire effort rings of truth. As Hal, Christopher Plummer completely owns this movie and fills it full of truth and life. It’s a rare thing indeed to see such a fully realized and sensitive portrayal of an older gay man in a film, and Beginners makes no cute concessions when it comes to a dying man fully living his life for the first time. Instead, it takes a pragmatic approach, and for all the colorful quirks in some of the courtship scenes, Beginners feels like it resembles the real world, and the actual people in it, far more than any other movie I saw this year.Plummer is getting all the Oscar buzz, as well he should, but Goran Visnjic should also be acknowledged for his a startlingly good turn as Hal’s loving (but not monogamous) younger boyfriend, Andy. Visnjic isn’t an actor I’ve paid much attention to in the past, mostly known for his role on ER (though he recently popped up in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, too), and he’s about the last actor I would have considered for this role. But he’s perfect — a little “off,” a little goofy, and absolutely the kind of guy we can see going for Hal. While the love story between Oliver and Anna in many ways couldn’t feel more indie-familiar, Beginners also treads into territory Hollywood has not, yet, in Hal’s relationships with his son, his lover, and his friends. In a just world, Plummer will win an Oscar and encourage more people to seek out this movie.

Beginners also contains a rare sort of nostalgia, both for the distant past (surrounding his parents’ courtship and marriage, and his own childhood), and the very recent one (2003, when much of the film takes place). In an effective voice over from Oliver, Mills draws ties between the past and present by showing us that the more things change, the more they stay the same — and Oliver’s life now is not all that dissimilar to his father’s at his age, despite some distinct differences. If you cry at just one movie this year, Beginners may very well be that movie.Which brings us to the film that really kicked off all this discussion of nostalgia in the first place — The Artist, a revival of the silent film. Once again, we have a cute dog who plays a primary role in the proceedings; in this case, he belongs to film star George Valentin and co-stars in all his movies. When the film begins, George is at the top of the Hollywood heap, and since silent films not only invented but also totally relied on the Meet Cute, you can’t really blame The Artist for going there as George literally bumps into wannabe starlet Peppy Miller, creating a nice photo op for the front page of Variety. George and Peppy have an obvious attraction to one another, but George is married. Instead, he gives her a little career advice, and the two continue on their merry way.

Unfortunately for George, the year is 1927, which means the dawn of talkies is rapidly approaching. Peppy rises to success as a speaking actress, while George is tossed aside in favor of younger, fresher talent. From there, The Artist takes a familiar path that primarily feels exactly the way this story would have played out in the 20’s. The cute dog makes a Lassie-like effort to save the day, and George and Peppy’s storylines follow an utterly predictable path every step of the way. Silent films weren’t exactly known for their twists and turns, so in this way, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius is completely faithful to the medium that inspired him. Not only is The Artist shot in black-and-white and free of dialogue (title cards notwithstanding), it follows the formula completely without any synced sound at all — jarring at first, but it’s easy to get into the film’s rhythm after a scene or two.

The pleasures in The Artist, then, are not really story or character-related, but the small comedic touches that do contain a lick of surprise. There are a number of brilliant visual metaphors that do strike an emotional chord, such as George (in a film) sinking into quicksand. Hazanavicius has proven himself to be a master visual storyteller, and much of The Artist works better than it probably should thanks to his consistent cleverness. His screenplay will likely be recognized by the Academy despite its lack of dialogue, and it very well should be — there are moments of terrific comedy here, like the note George receives from his dissatisfied wife. We only need to simply read what she wrote for this to come off as absolutely hilarious. Hazanvicius proves that film is a primarily visual medium, and much dialogue is superfluous.

Of course, it would only work with a cast that can commit to this old-school way of thinking, and that they do. Berenice Bejo is 100% fantastic as Peppy, who truly could have been a silent film star back in the day for as watchable as she is here. Jean Dujardin, too, commands the screen effortlessly and exudes a charm that can’t help but bring a smile to our faces. While better-known actors like James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, and John Goodman turn up in mostly one-note roles, Dujardin and Bejo are absolutely vital to this film’s success, and both deserve the Oscar nominations they will almost certainly receive.

But will The Artist win Best Picture? It’s the closest thing to a front-runner we’ve got in the race so far, and it’s a curious choice. As delightful as it is at times, it’s also a lightweight film that doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. In fact, it brings something very, very old to the table. There’s a dream sequence in The Artist in which George suddenly hears diagetic sound for the first time, a harbinger of the shift in moviemaking. It’s a clever meta conceit — almost too clever, since it made me wish Hazanvicius had found more ways to toy with us in this way. After Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ In The Rain, The Artist‘s story doesn’t feel quite fresh enough on its own to warrant such acclaim; Hazanavicius might have used this forum to make some kind of artistic or social commentary the way Todd Haynes did in his Douglas Sirk pastiche Far From Heaven. But he chooses not to.

As Certified Copy‘s James Miller would remind us, a copy is as valuable as an original piece of art — what matters is the public reaction to it. Well, The Artist is a carbon copy of silent old romances, and our reaction is nostalgia. We like The Artist because we like those old movies — though many of us probably haven’t actually seen many of them; we’re nostalgic for the sake of nostalgia. Those old films are still out there, collecting dust, but we’re all watching The Artist instead. Would The Artist have been a strong enough film to win Best Picture back in 1929, were it made exactly the same way? I doubt it. It’s a charming lark, and an exercise in form. Not much more. I’m not knocking The Artist as an engaging and viable piece of cinema, but it does not marry the past and present of moviemaking as the similarly-nostalgic Hugo did. It is what it is because of what the audience brings into it — a knowledge of and fondness for the silent film era.

Out with the new, in with the old. It’s a telling commentary on the state of cinematic art, then, if The Artist wins Best Picture.

*

Beginners: See it. The End.

Certified Copy: For intrepid arthouse fans, a must-see. For the general public… dubious.

The Future: Quirky doesn’t get much quirkier than this. Brilliant pieces in a problematic whole.

The Artist: Thin on story and meaning, but delightful.

Midnight In Paris: It’s porn for literature & art history buffs.

Forget Me Not: Forget it, unless there’s nothing else on.

One Day: Read the book.

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