A film review by Craig J. Koban February 23, 2012

Rank:  #3

THE ARTIST jjjj

2011, PG-13, 100 mins.

 

George Valentin: Jean Dujardin / Peppy Miller: Berenice Bejo / Al Zimmer: John Goodman / Clifton: James Cromwell / Doris: Penelope Ann Miller / Constance: Missi Pyle / Extra: Malcolm McDowell

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius

To many lay filmgoers, THE ARTIST has a number of elements against it.  Itís a silent film; itís in black and white; it has subtitles (actually, intertitles, to be precise); and Ė dear Lord! Ė itís a French film.  

Yet, look closer and youíll find that Michel Hazanaviciusí film is - like Martin Scorsese's HUGO - a heartfelt and deeply personal love ballad to the movies.  Itís not only a meticulous and bravura reconstruction of 1920ís era film artifice (it feels like a film made about its time and of its time), but THE ARTISTís impeccable craft relays a deeper message at its core: just as cynical and despondent modern filmgoers have issues with seeing a film like this, the story set within the film comments on how jaded audiences of decades past were not too different; when viewers began clamoring for ďtalkiesĒ, it killed the silent film industry and its once beloved stars. 

Beyond that, THE ARTIST has just about everything that audiences tend to want in their films: drama, comedy, romance, action, and crowd-pleasing lead performances.  Hazanavicius just happens to Ė ironically at least Ė make a modern film that utilizes antiquated methods to thrill and entertain his contemporary audience.  THE ARTIST is an affectionate throwback to a bygone period of Hollywoodís early days, but at its core the film has underpinnings of sly satire.  It may have been made with a precisely exact technical style to thoroughly imitate the silent melodramas of old, but Hazanavicius was self-aware in the process.  In a way, this dynamic allows for THE ARTIST to feel wonderfully old fashioned, but sort of audaciously contemporary all the same.  Most crucially, it's made by people who understand and love film history and have the necessary tools and know-how to make an old school film captivating to modern viewers. 

THE ARTIST takes place during a five year period (1927-1932) when the silent film actors were adored gods among filmgoers, only to see their celebrity status fade nearly overnight with the advent of the first talkies in the late 20ís (the moviegoing masses, alas, were just as fickle then as they are now).  We initially meet one silent star at the very zenith of his titanic popularity, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a figure so prominent and powerful in the industry that producers and studios essentially answer to him.  Valentin is eminently proud of his films and their popularity and has the soul of an ďartistĒ that cares for their worth, but his status in the industry has nonetheless made him vain and arrogant.  Heís the kind of famous celebrity that canít pass a mirror (or an oversized mural painting of himself) without checking his reflection and smiling in cocky approval. 

He has a chance encounter with a fan that both indirectly and directly changes his career in unalterable ways: While posing for photos with fans he has crosses paths with a loyal one in particular, Peppy Miller (Argentine beauty Berenice Bejo), and their posed kiss makes all the headlines in town.  Soon, Peppy uses her ď15 minutesĒ of fame to get bit parts in silent films, usually as an extra or a dancer in the background, but slowly her career begins to take off to the point where she becomes as famous and sought after as Valentin himself.  Meanwhile, Valentin continues to makes pictures, but he still canít seem to stop thinking about Peppy, much to his wifeís (Penelope Anne Miller) chagrin.  

 

 

Then comes experiments with sound in cinema, which inevitably leads to the head of Valentinís studio, Al Zimmer (a robustly delightful John Goodman) breaking the news that they will now only be making talking pictures.  Valentin is insulted, seeing as he still holds true to the aesthetic ideals of his silent films, and brazenly decides to part ways with Zimmer and self finance his own silent action picture.  Unfortunately, Valentin banks it himself during the outbreak of the Great Depression and when the film is released, silent pictures are all but box office poison.  His film flops and heís left a penniless and broken man.  Concurrent to this is Peppyís meteoric rise to power in talkies, but when she learns that that man she has always admired and loved is at his darkest place in life, she rushes in to intervene before itís too late. 

Again, Hazanaviciusí admiration for the films heís imitating breathes adoringly through every pore of THE ARTIST.  The film is shot with Guillaume Schiffmanís lush and sumptuous black and white cinematography (framed in the 1.33:1 screen ratio of its time: no widescreen here, folks) and has intertitles interweaved throughout, just as silent films of yesteryear.  There are no fancy camera tricks, no modern visual effects (at least as far as I could tell), and no contemporary editorial techniques.  THE ARTIST looks and feels as if it were made in its period and any type of movie-making technology from today encroaching in on it would have ruined the effect.  This is all complimented by a lively and, at times, hauntingly beautiful score that echoes the composer maestros of old by Ludovic Bource (see Review Addendum).  The film is stridently melodramatic and its underlining story arcs may seem to have a preordained trajectory, but the narrative should have the faÁade of the quaint and unassuming melodramas from the 20ís and 30ís. 

Perhaps more than anything, THE ARTISTís real coup de grace is not its astounding production artifice, but its two lead performances that propel the film and give it a heart and soul.  Berenice Bejo has an unspoken (well, obviously!) radiance and spunky effervescence that her role demands, but she later finds hidden layers to her characterís emotional journey that allows for her to traverse from fan to determined actress to mega-celebrity and ultimately to savoir.  And then there is the 39-year-old French actor Dujardin, who has the limitlessly thankless task of carrying the tangible aura of a Gene Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks, and Fred Astaire all in one.  He has roguish good looks, a boastful ear-to-ear smile that pierces the eyes, and the faculties to play Valentin in scenes of broad comedy or in moments of subtle and melancholic introspection.  Heís not so much imitating actors of the period as he is inhabiting their iconic essence, which is why he rightfully has been commanding accolades on the recent awards circuit.  His scenes are nearly stolen, though, by Uggy, his Jack Russell terrier that gives arguably the most endearing silent performance in the film.

If I were to have an issue with THE ARTIST then it would be that I wished that it tapped deeper into the darker recesses of Valeninís poverty-stricken and suicidal post-celebrity breakdown, which could have given the film a somber and more morosely operatic veneer.  Yet, I was so enraptured by the sheer ambition and audacity of the whole enterprise that I couldnít really care in the slightest about nitpicking (that, and a dreary third act would have not allowed for the filmís virtuoso tap dancing finale that joyously ends the film on an applause-worthy high).  To be fair, not all of THE ARTIST is silent (eleven words are spoken, but when they are itís a perfect kind of golden moment), but watching a silent film reminded me of why we go to the movies: to focus intently on whatís transpiring on the screen and become an active and engaged participant in its story.  You donít need dialogue, or color film, or American and English speaking performers/directors to provide that.  In our recent nihilistic age of mindless spectacles of Michael Bay-ian overkill, THE ARTIST is like a spiritual deliverance of the senses.

REVIEW ADDENDUM

There has been some brewing controversy regarding Bource's score, which does contain some long sections of Bernard Herrmann's most famous theme from VERTIGO.  I have no problem with the appropriation of Herrmann's score here for the sake of evoking a sense of time period and mood in the film (not to mention that it consciously is meant to echo classic films), but I do have issues with Bource's score being nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score.  How could a film score be considered an original work if it contains clear-cut and copied elements of past work by someone else?  Beat's me.

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