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The Artist (2011)

January 8, 2012


written by: Michel Hazanavicius

produced by: Thomas Langmann

directed by: Michel Hazanavicius

rating: PG-13 (for a disturbing image and a crude gesture) 

runtime: 100 min. 

U.S. release date: November 25, 2011 (limited) and December 21, 2011 (wide)


I had a very memorable experience at the movies watching “The Artist” during the closing night of the Chicago International Film Festival this past October. I knew going in that it was a black and white silent film that was gaining some strong buzz. The film was delightful and enjoyable, but what stood out most was something I couldn’t help noticing something rare and uncommon: I was surrounded by a quiet and attentive audience. Imagine that. That’s because following along with French director Michel Hazanavicius’ new film requires viewers to use a different set of senses than what most viewers are used to. Dialogue must be read not heard, bringing more attention to the sound and vision of a film, and admiration to the art of telling a story without spoken dialogue. Indeed, “The Artist” gives an audience a chance to partake in the past, a chance to give them something different to an audience – that is, if they allow such a thing.

“The Artist” is easy to appreciate in that sense, as it is a witty and charming film that respectfully salutes the silent era. Its affection is obvious and is as intact as its joyous simplicity. What you’ll get out of it is clear from the start, a rousing nostalgic trip that is wonderfully told and acted, but don’t look for anything more beyond that.

The film opens with an audience watching a silent film, which we catch at the climax, “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” cries the protagonist played by George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he’s strapped in an electric chair. It’s an immediate hint at what we can expect from Valentin, a handsome actor (resembling Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks) who has risen to fame throughout the silent film era. He will soon find that in the late 1920s, with the advent of something called “sound”, there may not be a place for him in the movies.

On the red carpet of the premiere for his new film, “A Russian Affair”, we see Valentin, along with his dog/co-star (Uggie), hogging all the attention while his human co-star, Constance (Missi Pyle) gets overlooked. He’s about to get upstaged himself, when a beautiful woman in the crowd, accidentally finds herself next to Valentin, right in front of all the flashing cameras. The two make the cover of Variety the next day, with the cover asking “Who’s that Girl?”, a question Valentin himself wants answered. He finds out the next day on the set of a new film he’s shooting, where he finds the same girl auditioning to for a part of a dancer. The veteran actor learns this plucky young actress is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and is so taken by her moxie that he coerces studio boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) to give her more prominent roles. Although the two actors fall in love, the strain of her stardom rising as Valentin’s fades – with the increasing development of the talkies – begins to take its toll.

A defiant Valentin resists the change in the industry, “If that’s the future,” we read in a title card, “you can have it!” and thus begins the stubborn actors’ downward spiral. With Miller becoming a sensation and Zimmer letting all the silent stars go, Valentin decides to finance, direct, and star in his own silent film. It leads to financial ruin, which finds his despondent wife (Penelope Ann Miller) kicking him out and his compassionate valet (James Cromwell) taking him in. Miller takes pity on her dejected and depressed co-star and goes out of her way to help her beloved rekindle his zeal for film and embrace a new era in film with her.

“The Artist” is a reunion for Hazanavicius and Dujardin, who collaborated on the two “OSS 117” parodies that spoofed the Bond films. Just as Hazanavicius (it must be noted what a cool name he has) celebrated the tone and feel of those spy movies with much affection, the writer/director takes deliberate care to bring back a fond period in film history. The writer/director also reunites with another “OSS 117” talent, composer Ludovic Bource, who plays a vital role in capturing the vibrancy, melodrama, and  swelling emotions on display throughout the film.

The two lead performances by the dashing Dujardin (who won Best Actor for the role at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) and the magnetic Bejo (Hazanavicius’ wife) earnestly carry the film. In no way does it ever seem like a task for them, as we watch the two actors communicate the desires and fears of these characters through a combination of body language and facial expressions. Whether it’s their exhausting song-and-dance numbers or their touching moments of romantic connection, the commitment by these two is infectious. It must also be noted that in a year with some strong canine acting (see “Beginners” and “The Adventures of Tintin”), Uggie the Jack Russell terrier who just about steals the show from anyone he shares the screen with. He fits perfectly in the silent format, delivering comic timing that’s just as good – if not better – than his human co-stars.

As a filmmaker, Hazanavicius employs some very clever touches that accentuate the wonder of the silent era. From the framing and lighting technique he and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman (another “OSS 117” alum) employ, to the use of mirror images and fun visual gags, an obvious celebration of the innocence of the time is clear. As a writer though, Hazanavicius isn’t really giving us anything too original. Yes, it’s quite something to see such a film in theaters, but the material is reminiscent of a handful of other films. There’s the obvious comparison to “Singin’ in the Rain” and “A Star is Born”, which finds one film focusing on the rise and fall of silent cinema and the other on descent/ascent of two stars. It’s easy to find nods to Chaplin films and a nice homage to “Citizen Kane” in a wonderful screening room scene. But all this lends a certain familiarity that, at first, had me grinning but after a while, I found it be a deterring factor that slightly hinders the film.

Ultimately, “The Artist” is simply a movie in love for movies, making it easy for those equally in love the movies to go along with it all.  Those who want something similar yet with characters with a bit more dimension to them, would do well to check out “Hugo”. Regardless, Hazanavicius’ provides an entertaining film that resonates in an emotional and endearing way.

RATING: ***1/2

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2012 5:48 am

    Love your blog!

    Perhaps I was way too keen? I was charmed to bits by this! I know, the plot wasn’t exceptionally deep but it was excellently made and I just fell for it.

    Check out my review!


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