Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Artist

THE ARTIST: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell (99 min.)

I must admit, I have seen only a handful of silent movies. I have seen all your heavy hitters, your Phantom of the Opera, Nosferatu, Wings… I have never taken the time to dive deep into the catalogue of silent films. But I have seen enough about the history and the techniques of silent films to know the tricks of the trade. I imagine most people know about the title cards, the effects, and the importance of expressive faces. Then again, nothing would surprise me in this current landscape of moviegoers. I say all of this to say I do appreciate silent films for their history, and I appreciate and admire The Artist for its uncanny ability to tell a fresh tale in cinema’s oldest format. The Artist does a marvelous job of making an antiquated filmmaking style relevant, exciting, funny, and heartfelt. It would be easy for a film like this to fall into gimmickry and lose its way as a real story; The Artist never falls victim.

Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, the most famous silent film star in all of Hollywood, an actor with great expressive eyebrows and a wide smile who never goes anywhere without his companion and co-star, a Jack Russell terrier. Valentin is on top of the world when he discovers, through happenstance, Peppy Miller, an energetic young girl with stars in her eyes. After Valentin places a beauty mark carefully on her cheek one afternoon, Peppy begins to get more and more roles until she becomes the biggest female star in the land. It just so happens that sound in film has been invented right about this time, and Peppy has the pipes and the looks for talkies; George Valentin rejects this new technology.

As George rejects talkies, Peppy embraces them and becomes an icon. George spends all of his own money making a silent film which fails and leaves him with very little. His vacant wife (Penelope Ann Miller) divorces him and takes what is left, leaving him with a ramshackle apartment, prints of his films, and his Jack Russell. If that wasn’t enough, the stock market crashes and George is penniless. Peppy tries to help him, but his pride clouds his better judgment.

The Artist is about the rise and fall and subsequent rise of George Valentin. I don’t feel like I am spoiling anything by describing it as such. This is a classic tale and you know Valentin will find his redemption. The fascination here lies within the seamless execution of a silent film 85 years after Wings became the last of the lot to win Best Picture. People may be immediately turned off by The Artist being a silent film in black and white, but director Michael Hazanavicius fills the screen with wonderfully expressive personalities. Aside from Jean Dujardin commanding the screen as Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as a charming Peppy Miller, James Cromwell plays George’s chauffeur and friend, Clifton and John Goodman is the boisterous film producer, Al Zimmer, never without a cigar in his mouth. All of the actors have faces and expressions for silent film, on top of a certain familiarity that might help a wider audience embrace the picture if only they would give it a chance.

There are two scenes of sound, aside from the musical score throughout the picture. One is a nightmare sequence for George, and the other is the final dance number between George and Peppy. Both moments are vital for the story, and the final scene tells us even more about Valentin which might lead us further to understanding his position on the talkies. The Artist is no gimmick; this is one of the very best films of the year. I understand the apprehension of the modern moviegoer to avoid a silent film in 2011, but I implore you to have an open mind. You won’t be disappointed.