Pick of the week: Another French film inspired by silent comedy

Pick of the week: Effervescent, delirious and delightful, "The Fairy" blends slapstick, romance and modern dance

Topics: Our Picks, The Artist, Our Picks: Movies,

Pick of the week: Another French film inspired by silent comedy

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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>