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Here’s a question I’ve been asked several times during this Oscar season: Where in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks did “The Artist” come from? Whether people love it, like it or can barely tolerate it, the very existence of a French film made in half-loving, half-mocking tribute to the forgotten American dramas from the tail end of the silent era is distinctly puzzling. One answer to the question, of course, is to look at the previous work of soon-to-be-Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius and actor Jean Dujardin, who were well known in France for their tongue-in-cheek approach to classic cinema long before making “The Artist.”
Only a handful of American viewers bothered to catch “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” or “OSS 117: Lost in Rio,” Hazanavicius’ pair of spy farces featuring Dujardin as Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, a venerable James Bond knockoff (who was Franco-American in his original incarnation, but is reinvented here as a thoroughly clueless, sexist and bigoted 1960s Frenchman). Those movies are hilarious, although you have to know at least a little about French culture to get the jokes. “The Artist” may actually have more in common with Hazanavicius’ 1993 “La Classe Américaine,” a Situationist-style pastiche in which clips from vintage Warner Bros. movies are spliced together and dubbed with new French dialogue. Since it’s a copyright violation of epic standards — the “cast” includes John Wayne, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Clark Gable, Orson Welles, Charles Bronson (as an Indian chief) and Elvis Presley (as “le putain d’énergumène,” or the damned weirdo) — I know of no legal or even possible methods to see it.
But the weirdness of Hazanavicius’ obsessions seems slightly less peculiar set against the overall French fascination with the forgotten detritus of American pop culture, and particularly with silent film and vintage comedy. I’m delighted to report, for example, that “The Fairy,” the latest offering from the weird and charming Franco-Belgian-Australian comedy team of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, is hitting American shores during Oscar week, lending valuable context to the triumph of “The Artist.”
It would be going way too far to claim that Abel and Gordon are stars in the French-speaking world, but at least this long-limbed, long-faced, sweetly retro dance-comedy duo — the spawn of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, mixed with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — have something of a following. (They may yet find one here; if “The Artist” can happen, then anything can.) Mind you, “The Fairy” is not a silent film. As always, Abel, Gordon and co-director Romy make tremendous magic out of simple sound cues, most notably the theme song from some totally forgotten American cowboy musical. There’s even some talking; compared to “Rumba,” their delirious Latin-dance extravaganza from 2008, it’s a veritable gabfest. But hardly any of the dialogue is important as information, at least after Gordon, playing a self-described fairy named (as always) Fiona, shows up at the sad-sack Le Havre hotel where Abel (playing a character called Dom, as always) works to offer him three wishes. He wants a scooter, a lifetime supply of gasoline and, well, you’ll have to see the movie for No. 3, but you can probably guess.
As in their previous features, “Rumba” and “L’Iceberg,” this trio sticks to the simplest and most archetypal kind of storytelling. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, brokenhearted boy will do what he must to get girl back. The magic of the film lies elsewhere, in the ectomorph frames of Abel and Gordon in motion, in the unfettered imagination and distinctively odd vision, in the wonderfully silly humor. Along the way we get several exquisite dance numbers, one of them on the bottom of the ocean and another on a rooftop (that one ends with the birth of a baby, and no, I’m not kidding). There a host of overtly ludicrous sight gags — a hospital, its front door barely visible through the fumes emitted by all the cigarette-smoking doctors and patients — a severely nearsighted waiter attempting to serve glasses of draft beer, and any number of slapstick chase sequences on foot, by scooter and even by car (employing old-fashioned rear projection, of course). There’s a heartbreaking musical number involving a women’s rugby team that just lost a big match by 57 points. I suppose it’s unnecessary to point out that a movie called “The Fairy” is a fairy tale, even if it’s not entirely clear that Fiona really is a fairy rather than, say, an escaped mental patient with a forceful way of affecting the world around her.
To cite a film that a few people have actually heard of, “The Fairy” is an obvious companion piece, in terms of mood, setting and rundown seaside surrealism, to Aki Kaurismäki’s “Le Havre,” which should have gotten a foreign-language Oscar nomination but didn’t. How’s that for a tie-in? Simultaneously artful and innocent, wistful and effervescent, hilarious fun with an undercurrent of almost bleak surrealism — and French down to the level of its DNA — “The Fairy” is surely not everyone’s glass of Pernod. But if you’re looking for another refreshing palate-cleanser after “The Artist,” I thoroughly recommend it. It’s wonderful to be reminded that the film universe is more diverse than the Oscars normally suggest — and also that movies can be lightweight entertainments and also deeply strange.
“The Fairy” opens this week at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Quad Cinema in New York, and then opens March 9 in Milwaukee; April 5 in Hartford, Conn.; April 20 in Boston; April 27 in Seattle; May 4 in Minneapolis, Salem, Mass., San Francisco and St. Louis; May 11 in Atlanta; and June 1 in Denver and Philadelphia, with more cities to be announced.