One of the most celebrated works of the great French cartoonist Sempé depicts a man who sees a lady fall over in the street and cannot contain his laughter, just as a large funeral cortège passes by. The grieving mourners are horrified by his behavior, so he takes refuge in a movie theater, where a Chaplin film is playing. As the entire theater rocks with laughter at the sight of Chaplin’s tramp falling in the street, the man sits quietly and weeps.
The French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard once said in a television interview that no matter how many times he had watched the musical numbers of Singin’ in the Rain, he couldn’t sit through them without feeling his heart pounding in his chest.
What is revealed by these stories of Sempé and Baudrillard, and is so beautifully documented by Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, is France’s love affair with American cinema, in all its contrariness, its jealous aspirationalism, and in its belief in the transcendence of the “moment,” be it Chaplin’s own dancing bread rolls, the heartbreaking gesture of loyalty of von Stroheim’s Max in Sunset Boulevard, or Charles Foster Kane’s descent into madness—all of which and many more are strongly brought to mind, without being directly referenced, when watching The Artist. Read Julien Allen’s review of The Artist.