Sometimes you just wonder what that poor person must have been thinking when he or she rejected my invitation to make a silent-movie copy of something. It seems that for as long as a half-century, filmmakers have made silent films with interstitial music. I counted perhaps 60 such “bullets” shot with an outboard as a silent feature transitioned into a full-fledged talkie. “The Forty-Year-Old Version” — a sprightly little film by writer-director Antonio Campos that I first came across at a summer festival last year — is neither the first nor the last of these period concoctions. Whatever they are, though, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is much more fun than anything of that form we have just had.
In it, Campos presents a movie so fresh-faced and lubricious and shiny that it makes any whispered version seem like a temper tantrum. As before, the name is never mentioned, and the filmed recreation has a punishing fidelity to the page — none of the hokey poses, the smokey close-ups. As the setting is 1930s, the film focuses, from the get-go, on Charles Manson and his murderous followers. We see and hear them all through Mr. Manson’s own eyes as he records his “singing” tour of Europe.
And who’s up for some music? I couldn’t think of a name for the music during the film, but I knew it would be cutesy and inelegant, like any disco. Ms. Paris, who plays Gertrude, the actual woman he’s recorded his music for, comes up with an entire fictional musical — based on the bits of his repertoire and selected by the screenwriter, Elizabeth Berger — to accompany the “engagements” he must perform each evening. I didn’t need to know the lyrics, but when the narrator makes mention of “Comfort, I Want You,” I did stand up, shout “Yes!” and run off the screen.
Although we take for granted that he’s boring his audiences with his tuneless crooning, we learn he’s a hypnotic mental case. The local pharmaceuticals companies are worried about him, and so it’s up to an ambitious reporter to determine if the hapless Manson is a peeper, extortionist, lesbian or potential blackmailer. She invents a business empire around him that will capture his energies and get him back on the road for a terrific Hollywood scene. Besides putting on an easy show, he will also save her husband, who’s portrayed by a nimble actor-singer, Ben Rosenfield.
Another added value is the cop in Ms. Paris’s department, played by Anthony Mackie (who played the Ghost in “Ghostbusters 2”). Mackie makes a decent double act with his splendid co-star. As for Mr. Manson himself, Justin Theroux plays him (and if, like me, you forget who he is, then you probably won’t be able to get past the soundtrack notes, either.) Somehow he remains intriguingly ignored as he wangles his way into records and tours — and into the subconscious of Paris’s alter ego, almost, though her husband gets the last laugh.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” seems to come from the mind of a wide-eyed 12-year-old in a cheap horror flick. But this popcorn charmer celebrates the elusiveness of youth. That it’s also a tribute to original music and retro style is the lucky trinity.