The Artist

The transition from silents to talkies in cinema has a dramatically different effect on the careers of two actors. George Valentin is at the pinnacle of his profession. He’s a Hollywood star at the top of his game, beloved by millions. Surrounded by adoring fans, he’s charming, but also a bit narcissistic. As the 1920s draw to a close, silent pictures are still the norm, but a new innovation has been introduced. Talkies, pictures with sound, are the new fad, or so thinks the popular actor. At the same time, young flapper Peppy Miller is eager for a big break and looking to become an actress. A photographer snaps her chance encounter with the big time cinema star when she is seen on the red carpet, playfully kissing the handsome leading man. The drama continues to follow the career trajectories of these two through the motion picture industry with decidedly different results.

To call The Artist stylish is an understatement. The film beautifully appropriates the vocabulary of the silent era. When a crowd applauds wildly in one scene, we hear nothing. In another when George raises his hands to his head and looks up to the sky to scream, the sound is deafening in its silence. In its place, we have a lush (mostly) instrumental soundtrack married with the gorgeous contrast of black and white film. The visual cues of light and dark shadows are that much more crucial because there is no sound to inform the narrative. The Artist is sincerely a loving re-creation of the silent period. Not as the works exist today, but as we imagine them to be. The appropriation is truthfully a lot better than what remains from the actual movies of that time. There are no missing frames or deteriorated quality. The actors’ movements are fluid, not jumpy or rushed. Intertitles are used, but only sparingly allowing the viewer to connect with the actors through reading their lips and gestures. The acting feels more natural and informed by the current age. Yes the performers must rely on facial expressions and body language to indicate emotion, but the execution is restrained. We’re spared the artificial, melodramatic faces that mar productions of that time period. This is the silent era as re-imagined with technological panache. The mood is luxurious and nostalgic. Breathtaking is an overused word, but it fits.

Director Michel Hazanavicius has assembled an impeccable cast. Stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are virtual unknowns outside of France. Their lack of recognizability supports this as some long lost silent film. Male lead Jean Dujardin looks like an actor from the 1920s who traveled by time machine to 2011. He skillfully channels classic stars of a bygone era. Physically he’s cut from the same cloth as swashbuckling matinee idols like Douglas Fairbanks or Clark Gable. He gives a particularly heartbreaking performance. Having to rely solely on gestures to convey feeling is difficult to do well, but he’s incredible here. Bérénice Bejo, the director’s wife in real life, is Peppy Miller and her name describes her attitude. Spunky and cute, she’s effervescent as the ingénue. Think dark haired beauties like Janet Gaynor and or a very young Joan Crawford. Though the Argentine-born actress does not physically suggest the silent era as well as her male counterpart, she has an easy chemistry with Jean Dujardin. The two, along with director Michel Hazanavicius, have actually worked together before on the spy movie parody OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Perhaps it’s ironic to see a French director celebrating American film culture so unabashedly. That he could mimic Hollywood in the 1920s so perfectly is a tribute to his obvious love for American movies.

As mesmerizing as the two leads are, they couldn’t have carried the story without impressive supporting work by a talented cast. Providing some familiarity are American actors John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller. I have no idea the circumstances that permitted them to appear in this exquisitely made French film, but maybe their agents are in need of a raise. It’s been awhile since these actors have appeared in any films of note. They exist mainly to support the two French stars, but all give enjoyable performances here, appropriate to the time period. Lastly I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention a 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Uggie, a scene-steeling pooch that’s pretty inspiring as well. As George Valentin‘s, faithful companion and co-star, he’s sure to make any dog lover swoon.

The Artist is marked by a poetic beauty.  How can you not love a film that is (virtually) silent yet speaks volumes? Although The Jazz Singer was released in 1927 and is recognized as the first commercially successful talking picture, the majority of movies released were still silent for the next two years. It wasn’t until 1929 that the format eventually took off. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot was the last silent to be nominated for Best Picture in 1929. That will change this year. It takes chutzpah to make a silent movie in 2011. The fact that it’s so darn good, is just an additional benefit. As a period piece, it brilliantly captures the early age of sound, but the plot also presents a searing emotional drama about ego and the transitory nature of fame. In a word, it’s stunning and reminiscent of classics like Singing in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard in terms of themes addressed. I dare say this ranks favorably when compared alongside side those jewels of the silver screen. The Artist is a film for the ages.

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13 Responses to “The Artist”

  1. I agree, a truly breath taking film.

  2. Damn, Mark, how’d you find this? I searched for theaters showing it within 100 miles of where I live and none showed up. I want to see it so badly, and your review just makes me want to see it more. How I hate limited releases!

    • I know exactly what you mean. I was lucky with The Artist as it’s playing at a theater close to where I live. But Shame, Young Adult and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are all in limited release far away from me. I want to see them now!!

      • None of those looked good to me (especially Young Adult). I wish somewhere online there would be one site that would tell me when the hell this movie is coming to DVD!!!

  3. I really loved your review, Mark! And if I was looking forward to watching “The Artist”, I am now practically dying to do so.

  4. Favorite movie of the year, by far. Amazing! I’m glad the lead actors weren’t recognizable. It was such a fun time. And the dog was awesome.

  5. Positively underwhelming for me Mark….yes it was gorgeous and the leads were superb…in the same you way you were unable to make an emotional connection to the characters in TTSS – I couldn’t make one with any of them in this film. Don’t get me wrong, I think its superb – but I don’t think it makes my top list for 2011. It was also way too long. I felt robbed when neither Jean DuJardin or Berenice Bejo died at the end…. would have been better in my opinion!

    We’re recording our review of this later tonight – stay tuned!

    • Not sure how something could be underwhelming, emotionally uninvolving and too long, but still superb all at the same time. LOL I’ll have to catch the podcast I guess. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it. I found the sheer humanity of the drama just heartbreaking.

  6. Praise the Lord! I just might be seeing this on Friday (2/3)! I’m so excited. 😀

  7. Wouldn’t it be neat if George had been right all along, and now that people have had a chance to see how much fun a silent movie can be, they stop going to talkies and flock to the silents; and all the Johnny Depps and Meryl Streeps who got famous in speaking roles wind up out of work, selling their clothes to hock shops?
    .
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    By the way, Mark, do you think they might have picked that actor partly because he looks a little like John Gilbert?

    Actually I thinks he looks even more like Lee Bowman, but there’s no relevance to that resemblance; and after all, there are only 8 people in the universe who remember Lee Bowman, three of them being his grandchildren and one being me.

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