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The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius
Stars: Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), Bérénice Bejo (Peppy Miller), John Goodman (Al Zimmer), James Cromwell (Clifton), Penelope Ann Miller (Doris), Missi Pyle (Constance), Beth Grant (Peppy’s Maid), Ed Lauter (The Butler), Joel Murray (Policeman Fire), Bitsie Tulloch (Norma), Ken Davitian (Pawnbroker), Malcolm McDowell (The Butler), Basil Hoffman (Auctioneer), Bill Fagerbakke (Policeman Tuxedo)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2011
Country: France / Belgium
The Artist
The Artist Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist grew on me. I resisted the self-conscious cleverness of its retro-silent-film conceit for quite a while; it felt too mannered and deliberate, the clear product of a modern mind trying to evoke a bygone era without fully getting lost in it. In a word, it was a bit too cute for its own good. Yet, as the film unspooled, its charms began to congeal and the underlying emotions of its comfortably familiar tale of stardom lost and stardom won grabbed hold. Soon I could see why so many critics are falling all over themselves to praise it and why the jury at Cannes awarded Jean Dujardin the festival’s Best Actor prize. I still have my reservations, and I can’t help but wonder if, after the dust has settled, it won’t be viewed several years from now as little more than a smart, well-mounted curiosity piece, rather than the ravishing celebration of silent film art that its most vocal admirers are making it out to be. But, it was fun while it lasted.

The story takes place in 1927, the year that synchronized sound made its big Hollywood debut and started what, to this day, is the single most seismic shift in motion picture history. Jean Dujardin, who previously starred in Hazanavicius’s espionage satires OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), plays George Valentin, a hugely popular matinée idol who resists the lure of “talking pictures,” believing them to be a passing fad that can’t hold a candle to his charisma both on-screen and off. As everyone outside of Charlie Chaplin learned in the late 1920s, synchronized sound was the future of movies, and in an amazingly short period of time silent film art was shoved into the dustbin of history, an anachronism enjoyable only to film historians and cinephiles. And so goes George. The decline of his once storied film career is matched by the rapid ascension of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a dancer who ironically gets her big break when she bumps into George at one of his premieres. Just as George’s artistry is attuned to the physicality and grand gestures of the silent era, Peppy’s is attuned to the speedball wit and charms of sound, and soon they switch places socially and economically, with George rapidly relegated to obscurity while Peppy conquers Hollywood with a string of big hits and an adoring fanbase.

The aesthetic conceit of The Artist is that it is presented as a silent film—not just the lack of synchronized dialogue, but also the acting style, shooting at 22 frames per second in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and, to some extent, the camerawork and editing style (those not familiar with the silent era tend to mistakenly think of it as primitive and archaic, lacking in the aesthetic refinement of modern cinema). With his toothy grin and perfectly trimmed pencil-thin moustache, Dujardin embodies the smooth charms of Clark Gable and the swashbuckling derring-do of Douglas Fairbanks. He looks like he stepped out of 1927, which is a rarity in films made about the past (casting directors rarely seem to take into account how certain facial features and body types are more predominant during different historical periods, but veteran Heidi Levitt clearly did in casting John Goodman as a studio mogul, James Cromwell as George’s dedicated valet, and Penelope Ann Miller as his chilly wife). Although he is working in an older acting style that favors large gestures and emphatic facial expressions, Dujardin still evokes the entire wealth of the emotional spectrum, drawing us into his character’s hearty narcissism (he has a big ego, but we still like him because he wears it so joyfully) before sliding inevitably into increasing despair as the public forgets him. Bérénice Bejo, who looks a bit like Mary Tyler Moore, is equally effective, ably conveying the appropriately named Peppy’s relentless optimism and opportunism while also maintaining an important edge of humanism that comes into play in the film’s second act.

The Arist works as well as it does because George and Peppy ultimately work as human beings, rather than silent-era ciphers. The film has little real interest in the history of the silent-to-sound transition, papering over or ignoring much of the complexity of that era in favor of roundly familiar motifs and ideas that most people will find familiar enough to accept as basic historical fact. Thus, all we really have are the characters, and there is a pleasant sense of growth as we watch both George and Peppy transcend the obvious trappings of their appointed places in the Hollywood hierarchy. We get the sense that Hazanavicius genuinely feels for and likes these characters, which helps us feel for them, as well. Without that strain of emotional attachment, The Artist could have easily been nothing more than a clever aesthetic trick, substituting wink-wink silent-film anachronisms for character development and humanism. Instead, Hazanavicius makes style and story work together, and the best thing I can say about The Artist is that, by the end, I had ceased to notice that it was even using intertitles and no one had spoken a word.

Overall Rating: (3)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright © The Weinstein Company


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