The Artist (2011) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture
Running time: 100 min.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter
Cameo: Malcolm McDowell
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius
Review published December 13, 2011
The Artist is writer-director Michel Hazanavicius's (OSS 117: Cairo, OSS 117: Lost in Rio) stylish and rare silent film for the modern era, It stars French actor and entertainer Jean Dujardin (Brice de Nice, 99 Francs) as one of the biggest stars of the Hollywood silent movie era (the 1920s), George Valentin. His professional life is gangbusters, but his personal life is lacking, stuck in a marriage with a woman (Miller, The Messengers) who no longer appreciates his showboat antics both on and off the stage. A chance encounter sees George encountering a young, attractive and unknown aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bejo, A Knight's Tale), whom he takes under his wing to introduce into the world of show business.
ut their worlds are in for a major change when talkies, films that feature on-screen sound and spoken dialogue, threaten to overtake the appeal of the silent film era. George sees it as a fad, refusing to jump on board, quitting the studio that brought him success to invest all his own money into a self-produced silent project to wow the audiences he's sure will still care. George's stardom fades as Peppy's begins to rise, and all the while their unrequited dalliance never quite takes hold in the wake of their career choices.
Though this is a basic riches-to-rags story (a la A Star is Born) at its core, points for originality are scored in this ambitious concept film. The film is shot as it would have been in the silent film era, without widescreen, in black and white photography, and without any sound (except for a couple of important moments) save for its sumptuous score. As with many silent films, there are intertitles to explain what's being said during important scenes, though savvy lip-readers will have little trouble knowing what the characters are saying, and even those who can't will get the gist.
A mix of silent era comedy staples, with bits borrowed from the likes of Chaplin and Keaton, merge with the melodrama, and even some German expressionism, to encapsulate a blend of the best of the popular cinema of the 1920s. While Valentin's trained performer dog steals any scene he's in, it's the energetic and inventive performance by Dujardin, who won the Best Actor award when the film played at Cannes, that transcends the film into something special -- charismatic, dashing, and with the rascally, yet vulnerable, charm to make you want him to succeed despite his perpetual hubris and self-centered view on life. Seemingly unflappable, and yet the inner pain can be seen when his idyllic world of an adored and consummately appreciated artist crumbles. He's an irreverent amalgam of the best of the leading men of the era (he's debonair like Douglas Fairbanks, though his tale most closely mirrors John Gilbert) - a lover, a fighter, and a devil-may-care comedian at the same time. Like a movie within a movie, George is always what you see on the screen, and his life is as silent and as black and white as it is when the film is displayed in front of audiences in urban theaters around the world. Dujardin gives, arguably, the finest performance in a silent film in nearly a century.
By the end of the film, you'll have witnessed at least a handful of precious moments to remember from from tap dance numbers to doggie heroics, to the Bernard Herrmann love score from Vertigo to paint a tragedy. Smart, funny, clever, creative, and even touching, The Artist doesn't cater at all to the modern audiences, but for those who enjoy something different and inspired. Film buffs, especially those familiar with the transition between silent films to talkies, will find it interesting on multiple levels. It's a love story, not between a man and a woman so much as an artist and his audience, finding the right medium to love and be loved in return. Language is what separates much of world cinema -- silent film's appeal came not with words of a particular language but with emotions that nearly all humans, regardless of nationality, could relate to. It's a statement that true, pure cinema is not a medium beloved for its words, but for the plays on light and dark, the music, the way an actor can say so much without saying anything at all. Art needs media, and The Artist encapsulates what happens to artists when the media gives way to new technology. While the world of entertainment is constantly making way for the young, it's an important testament for appreciating the artists of old, who had to do as much or more with far less.
©2011 Vince Leo