Denys Arcand, the French Canadian auteur of “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986), “Jesus of Montreal” (1989) and “Love and Human Remains” (1993), employs a clever, if sometimes irritatingly affected, technique to tell the story of a small-town Canadian beauty who becomes a world-class supermodel in “Stardom”; but ultimately his movie proves as superficial as its subject-matter. It’s also way too long: a picture about Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame (its original title) can’t really be sustained for more than 100 minutes, even under the guidance of a dexterous filmmaker.
Arcand’s conceit is to narrate the rise of Tina Menzhal (Jessica Pare), a young woman first glimpsed as a hockey player, of all things, to the height of international celebrity, almost entirely through bits of phony “documentary” footage–snippets of TV news reports, talk shows, interview sessions, and (to fill in the gaps), excerpts from a film being made by a famous photographer who follows the gal around and, as a friend, is allowed to record even her most intimate moments. (Inevitably, there are a few points at which the director-writer is compelled to diverge from this approach–at the very end of the picture, for instance.) The satirical point, of course, is that the unfortunate woman’s life becomes nothing more than the creation of the media, and that she doesn’t really exist beyond the eye of cameras and the attention of obsessive fans and frantic commentators. The emptiness of modern “celebrity” is thus handily depicted, and for a while the jumpy, segmented narrative technique seems appropriate and generates some good laughs.
The problem is that Arcand’s targets are so broad and obvious that, as his picture drones on for nearly two hours, it becomes hard to admire the result even when he scores a bull’s-eye. During the first sixty minutes of so, there’s a fairly plentiful assortment of amusing lines, many emphasizing the fatuous ramblings of television pundits. Some of the characters, moreover, are generally intriguing, as one-dimensional as they might be: Charles Berling is seedily funny as the “artist” who discovers Tina, and Thomas Gibson hilariously controlled as the big-time agent who becomes her manager and handles every conceivable crisis in deadpan fashion.
But as the picture moves into the latter stages of Menzhal’s career it loses its way, growing increasingly serious and strident until it practically abandons its satiric edge to become very like a mediocre Lifetime telefilm. A sequence in which the woman is forced to confront the father who’d abandoned her on a smarmy TV program is embarrassing for the audience as well as the performers, and the melodramatic exertions involved in Tina’s two main romantic liaisons (the first with Dan Aykroyd, as an ambitious restaurateur, and the second with Frank Langella, who chews up the scenery with customary relish as a Canadian U.N. ambassador) prove too strenuous to succeed as farce.
On the credit side, Pare, looking on occasion like a younger version of Geena Davis, is sufficiently lovely to persuade us of her success in the fashion world, and she does occasionally manage to strike a poignant pose. And Aykroyd, apart from a final courtroom scene in which he’s forced to go overboard, gives a shrewd, shaded performance.
But ultimately “Stardom” doesn’t say much about the vacuous nature of modern celebrity that we didn’t already know, and over the course of its running-time the manner in which it offers its message grows increasingly thin. After all, even a genius like Orson Welles employed the newsreel device only for the first ten minutes of “Citizen Kane.” And Arcand, for all his ability, is no Welles.