Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal) isn't the first guy to skewer what Tennessee Williams called the bitch-goddess of success. Or to lay bare the absurdity of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. Or to otherwise annihilate celebrity worship. But in his observant, swiftly paced Stardom Arcand does it all with relentless wit, high style, and a suggestion of tragedy. Woody Allen, who in Celebrity cast a knowing eye on a world gone nuts for TV priests, plastic surgeons, and abusive Hollywood heartthrobs, will likely get a kick out of Arcand's multibarbed farce about the rise and fall of what the infotainment crowd calls a supermodel. So will Oliver Stone, who reminded us in Natural Born Killers that the fame-obsessed public, abetted by television, can no longer distinguish between serial killers and, say, football stars.
The boob tube is a comic villain in Stardom, too. Arcand chronicles the misadventures of his heroine, a none too bright small-town beauty named Tina Menzhal (Jessica Paré), almost entirely through his wicked parodies of television. In the process of being remanufactured as a global icon, poor Tina is subjected to everything from the dim-bulb queries of a hometown talk-show host, to the hormonal frenzy of the teen-trash channels, to the calculated violence of a Jerry Springer clone. In Arcand's satirical mockumentary (which comes frighteningly close to reality), a massacre in Algeria deserves no more air time than a product launch for perfume, and the hype for a trendy Manhattan restaurant outranks news of a terrorist bombing. Predictably Tina becomes complicit in this media orgy.
After she's discovered in raw form by a sleazy fashion photographer from Montreal, an agency head determines to wash and polish her, and she's quickly seduced by camera and microphone. By the time Tina is a major commodity in New York and Paris, she has invited a pompous scavenger carrying a minicam to record her every moment, public and private, and she's attracted the usual collection of ruthless agents, deluded suitors, and hysterical fans -- all the debris of her new station in life.
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Once ignited the product burns brightly. While Tina's income explodes, her hairdos, makeup, and wardrobe evolve daily. When animal-rights activists sling blood on to her fur coat, she decks one of them, and her handlers deftly spin mink murder into an act of solidarity with Native Americans. In a keen reminder of an earlier Arcand film, The Decline of the American Empire, insufferable professors on French television wrangle over the defamation of high culture and the meaning of beauty. In Aspen a breathless talking head rattles on about Tina's charity run in the Slalom for Bosnia.
It's no surprise that men make fools of themselves for what amounts to a glimpse of her image. Dan Aykroyd is wonderfully asinine as a greedy restaurateur destroyed by her spell, and Frank Langella, who always appears to have his hand in the cookie jar, is even better as a suave Canadian diplomat so undone by his pursuit that he puts his career to ruin with a hilariously garbled rant at the United Nations. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it's in the hands of the marketing department.
Tina Menzhal's reign is doomed to be short, of course. As one paparazzo brags, The hunter never rests. Not only that, he always bags his prey. Because fame is disposable, media-made gods and goddesses are discarded like peanut shells. Because no act is private and no confession too intimate for the talk-show circuit, we can no longer tell the difference between real and manufactured feeling. Does that matter? Certainly it doesn't matter to the deep thinker who tells us in Stardom: Superficiality never killed anyone.... Calvin Klein may be shallow but he never bombed Cambodia. How's that as a slogan for the times?
As for Tina she's destined to be reunited with her estranged father on national television, win a medal from the French government for artistic merit, publish her memoir (with the help of a ghostwriter, of course), and cut a brief swath through pop culture -- all before she turns 22 years old. Then the model of the moment is destined to be traded in for a new model, the inevitable conclusion of her run. For the audience it's been great fun, because Arcand never misses a chance to deflate the notions of life as performance, celebrity as addiction, and human flesh as commodity. This talented moviemaker may be working in a comic vein this time around, but his intentions are as serious as ever. Witness the funny and altogether touching moment when Tina's only true friend in the modeling trade, now reduced to heroin addiction and unemployment, summarizes her career by mounting an art exhibition called Shit, in which all the significant objects of her ruined life -- TV set, microphone, camera -- have been dipped in her excrement and put on display. Like almost every other satirical outrage in Stardom, this one cuts uncomfortably close to the truth. How long can it be until Oprah books an actual model-turned-junkie-turned-shit-smearing-performance-artist on her show?
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