‘The Artist’ was one of the most unexpected Oscar-dominators in recent memory. Other than Harvey Weinstein, who else could have predicted that a black-and-white silent movie would charm the pants off the damn planet? Certainly not writer/director Michel Hazanavicius, who suddenly found himself a world-renowned filmmaker with the clout to make anything he pleased as a follow-up. Unfortunately, like so many awarded comedic filmmakers before him, Hazanavicius decided that he really wanted to be taken seriously.
And so he made ‘The Search’, a movie trying so desperately to be a serious and important work of art that it forgets to be compelling or moving. Hopefully, after the long depressing years spent making this film, Hazanavicius will feel comfortable being funny again. That’s clearly where his talents lie.
Hazanavicius’ previous films were all self-consciously constructed from movies of other eras, so it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that his dramatic debut is actually a remake of a 1948 Fred Zinnemann movie updated to a setting in 1999 Chechnya. The tale opens with a brutal video of Russian soldiers executing a Chechen mother and father. Their three children survive, but the 9-year-old boy (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) flees. He eventually finds himself in a refugee camp run by Annette Bening (whose role in the film is limited to rants and pointed stares) and then ends up in the reluctant hands of a human rights activist (Bérénice Bejo). The lonely woman and lost boy share a prolonged and charming awkward friendship, with Bejo learning that helping one boy can be far more rewarding than writing about the pain of thousands. (Awwwwwwwwww!) Meanwhile, the film simultaneously follows an average Russian teenager (Maksim Emelyanov) who’s forced into the army and gradually beaten down until he’s an unthinking killing machine with little humanity left.
Yes, that’s a whole lotta misery to contend with, and Hazanavicius revels in every single second of it. From the moment ‘The Search’ begins, the director makes it very clear to his audience that he’s making a serious film about serious subject matter that is meant to be taken absolutely seriously. What follows is a work of misery-porn that would even make Lars von Trier want to tell Hazanavicius to “Take it easy, bro.”
Admittedly, the film is quite well crafted with a big budget, gritty use of cinematic technique, and obsessive care for period detail. However, it’s also oddly lifeless. Given all the emotions being manipulated and buttons being pushed by Hazanavicius and his team, this should be a moving story through sheer force alone. Yet pretty much from the first frame, the dramatic overkill takes hold and it’s hard to feel much of anything. With so much horrendous tragedy happening at once, all you can really do as a viewer is numb out and wait for it to mercifully end.
Oddly, the most affecting moments are the smallest and sweetest. The relationship between Bejo and talented child actor Mamutsiev is genuinely moving whenever Bejo isn’t pontificating about the political implications of the situation to other characters. Their interactions almost bring the movie to life. Likewise, some of Emelyanov’s army trials register through sheer intensity, but ultimately too many thesis speeches and overdramatic shock tactics dull the effect of the flick as a whole.
Hazanavicius obviously didn’t have much confidence in his skills as a dramatic filmmaker even though he was determined to prove that he could do more than cute comedy. There’s likely a good movie hidden within ‘The Search’ somewhere, but Hazanavicius didn’t trust himself enough to find it. Instead, he hammers home every dramatic beat, moment of injustice, explosion of violence, and pained sigh of misery so hard that the film is simply exhausting to watch. It’s not that the filmmaker made a bad movie, just that he overdid all the elements of a good one and lost the thread.
‘The Search’ has very little to enjoy, just show-off moments to admire and emotional depths to cry about. You can’t help but want to scream at the screen for Hazanavicius to calm own or dial back, but sadly he won’t be able to hear you. On the plus side, the film was considered an overblown failure from the moment it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, so there’s no chance of this work being misinterpreted as a success. Michel Hazanavicius swung for the dramatic fences and whiffed hard. I hope he returns to his gentle comedy comfort zone next time, because he was on a bit of a roll before now. There’s nothing wrong with giving viewers a laugh, Michel, especially when the alternative is a nearly unwatchable 2.5 hour slog like ‘The Search’.