Artist, The (France, 2011)December 27, 2011
To label The Artist as an homage to the silent era is to undervalue what director Michel Hazanavicius has achieved with this movie. In a time when bigger, louder, and more spectacular is interpreted as being "better," he has turned the clock back to a time when, although the technology was simpler, the experience was magical. Not only is The Artist an affectionate callback to the early days of cinema, it's a recreation of the melodramas of the time, with just a hint of a spoof around the edges. Hazanavicius isn't just making a "silent movie," he is attempting to enter a time warp and craft something that would fool all but the most studious and scholarly into believing it could have been a lost film from a bygone era. If his tongue is sometimes a little in his cheek, that's all part of the fun.
It might be possible to argue that The Artist's aesthetic - made in black and white with little in the way of a soundtrack (other than the score) and using the Academy aspect ratio (4:3) - is a gimmick if the style was not so critical to the story. The Artist could not spin the same tale if made using conventional 2011 movie-making techniques. It would seem hopelessly naïve and the themes would be strained and ungainly. There's no doubt that The Artist boasts a novelty factor and it plays the nostalgia card boldly and unashamedly, but the sweet and occasionally sappy result is emotionally satisfying. 75 years ago, this would have been mainstream entertainment; today, it's art house fare. Certainly, such a reflection of how tastes have changed is one of the reasons Hazanavicius made The Artist as he did.
The Artist spans a five year period, beginning in 1927 and concluding in 1932. For Hollywood (and the film industry in general), that was a time of great change and upheaval. The first talkie arrived on the scene in October 1927 and spelled almost immediate doom for the silent film. In 1929, at the first Academy Awards ceremony, six films were nominated for variations of what would become the Best Picture award - all were silent. One year later, in 1930, four of the five nominees were talkies. The only silent film to get a nod was The Patriot (for which a soundtrack of music and effects had been added in post-production) - it was the last of its kind to receive acknowledgment. Chaplin's City Lights, considered by many critics (and Orson Welles) to be his best work, was ignored by the Academy.
The Artist tracks these years by focusing on two characters whose careers are on opposite trajectories. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a star of the silent era with more power than the producers and directors who cast him. One day, he poses for a photograph with an ardent fan, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who catches the acting bug and appears as an extra in Valentin's next film. Over the next two years, as sound movies invade theaters, Valentin's fortunes fall as Peppy's rise. In 1929, the head of Valentin's studio, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), breaks the news to his friend that they are pulling the plug on silent films. Undaunted, Valentin funds and produces his own movie, which is a flop. The Crash of 1929 wipes him out financially and he is forced to move in with his chauffeur (James Cromwell). Unemployed and destitute, he sells all his possessions to stay afloat. Meanwhile, Peppy has become America's sweetheart. And, as Valentin used his clout in 1927 to force Zimmer to hire Peppy, she returns the favor in his darkest hour.
For a movie that is so much about technique, it's surprising how affecting the story is. Even with the actors adopting the grandiose styles of their 1920s/30s counterparts and with intertitles limited to the bare minimum, The Artist's romanticism and melodrama is capable of sweeping away viewers. We are not only fascinated by the ramifications of the paradigm shift in Hollywood, but we care about the main characters - the suave, likeable Valentin (and his dog) and the appropriately-named Peppy. The film has no villains, unless one considers the public's fickle taste and the advance of technology to be foes.
Still, what makes The Artist so much more than a version of A Star Is Born, is how it is presented. And the movie is special not just because it's silent, but because of the effort invested to give it a genuine '20s look and feel, and because so much love is evident in the final product. The Artist was made by people with an understanding of film history and an appreciation for what it would take to honor two eras - the late-silent/early talky one and the early 21st century one - in a single movie. The camera work and overall approach might be that of a 1930 motion picture but the story requires more distance. It took decades for silent films to be viewed more as an important and artistic aspect of movie history than as quaint, archaic, and inferior.
The acting is superb across-the-board in the way it recalls performances of 80 years ago. Jean Dujardin not only acts and looks the part (think Douglas Fairbanks), but he has a name that many silent film stars would have relished. He was chosen for the part based on a past collaboration with Hazanavicius - the two previously worked on a pair of spy movie spoofs. Berenice Bejo also has a history with the director, having appeared in those same movies while filling an off-screen role as his wife. The majority of the supporting cast is filled by Americans, including a bigger-than-life scene-stealing turn by John Goodman. Malcolm McDowell manages an odd cameo.
If there's one often-overlooked cinematic element that helps The Artist to work, it's Ludovic Bource's score. In a movie with no dialogue and (almost) no sound effects (this rule is broken in a surreal dream sequence), the music is asked to carry a much heavier load than in a normal motion picture. It is rightly said that, on a home DVD presentation (when a live performance is not possible), the nature of the score can alter how a silent film is interpreted. Bource's music is excellent, underlining emotions - playful at times and somber at others.
The Artist contains many elements that will keep unadventurous viewers away - it's French, demands reading of the dialogue, and is in black-and-white. Yet, despite those things (or perhaps because of them), it's one of the most enjoyable of 2011's crop of "elite" films. While it has something to say about the public's attitude toward stardom, The Artist is most entertaining because, like Hugo, it celebrates the history of cinema by giving us an engaging new chapter.
Artist, The (France, 2011)
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius
Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman
Music: Ludovic Bource
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company