The Artist (2011)

Film #17: The Artist (2011)

When was the last time a silent movie came out? I certainly couldn’t tell you, and I have a degree in film studies – but after this year, any casual film fan will be able to tell you. The Artist, a French film directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is a silent film emulative of the earliest popular Hollywood era, even choosing the classic 4:3 aspect ratio instead of modern-day widescreen. It’s also set during that time period, between 1927 and 1932, and in a very Singin’ in the Rain-esque story, examines the impact that talking pictures had on the industry’s original silent stars. The Artist made a huge splash when it came out late last year, and it’s nominated for no less than ten Academy Awards at this year’s Oscars. Is it possible that all this acclaim stems from the film’s harkening back to a glamorized past of the industry? Probably a bit, but that doesn’t mean The Artist isn’t a great movie in and of itself – it most certainly is.

The Artist begins with a film-within-a-film. Hollywood star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) eagerly watches the premiere of his latest flick from behind the projection screen. In a brilliant introduction to the silent aspect of the movie, after his premiere finishes, George holds his hand up to his ear to listen for the applause. We, the viewer, instinctively wait to hear it as well – but we don’t. George, of course, does, and revels in the fact, and we’re immediately reminded that yes, this is an actual silent film, title cards and all.

The story that f0llows is exceedingly simple. George is a huge star; he helps newcomer Peppy Miller (the blush-worthy beautiful Bérénice Bejo) get a foot in the industry; her fortuitous ascent through the credits coincides with the advent of “the talkies”, which George dismisses after a smoke-filled screening; he falls from grace while she becomes the girl audiences “love to love”; she helps him find redemption in the end. It’s the most basic of storylines, and something that we’ve seen done in countless renditions. Director Hazanavicius knows the story and reflects it in his style. Sometimes it’s clever, such as when a long shot shows George and Peppy divided in the frame, her at the top of a staircase looking down at him before they both go their separate ways; other times, it hits you over the head, such as when George’s final silent picture ends with him sinking beneath some quicksand. There’s also moments when the “dialogue” is too on-the-nose, such as when George’s wife deplores him for “not talking” (with regards to their marital problems). During some of these moments I just felt like the movie was gaudily winking at me, asking “Aren’t I clever?”

Symbolic composition that works

But now that I’ve gotten those minor complaints out of the way, I can get to the gushing. This movie is extraordinarily charming. There’s a lot that contributes to that, not least of all the way it so perfectly evokes classical silent Hollywood. The cinematography manages to evoke the way the camera was handled back in those days, while at the same time adding interesting shots and modern editing (especially cool was when George spills his drink out onto his reflection, and the movie-making montage of Tears of Love‘s production). The music by composer Ludovic Bource is exquisite, as is necessary in a film without dialogue. The leads are absolutely perfect. Jean Dujardin looks like he was plucked out of the past, strongly resembling Gene Kelly in both appearance and talent. Bérénice Bejo is a fantastic flapper, with all the lip-biting puerility that entails. John Goodman, as director Al Zimmer, finds a suitable outlet for his larger-than-life expressions. And look at those names – George Valentin, Peppy Miller, Al Zimmer? They just scream “Classic Hollywood”.

John Goodman knows how to use his face

As if that wasn’t enough, The Artist also features the best performance of an animal this side of the Yellow Brick Road. Uggie the dog plays Jack, the Jack Russell Terrier that stands by George during his prime and his eventual descent into Sunset Boulevard-depression. There are a number of campaigns to get Uggie some recognition at the Oscars, and I full-heartedly support them – provided that trainer/owner Omar Von Muller also gets some recognition. I’ve sadly noticed a complete absence of Von Muller’s name in all the articles about Uggie’s big role, and it seems shameful to me to ignore the fact that this talented animal had to have some very talented training behind it.

George Valentin, moments before PETA accosts him

I was a little surprised to see that Bejo’s nomination was for Supporting Actress, but I shouldn’t have been – this is by and large a film about George. I’d like to balance what I said earlier about the moments of heavy-handed symbology by lauding another stylistic decision: The fact that the sound in this movie is one hundred percent dependent on the self-centered protagonist’s perspective. The reason the movie is almost entirely silent is because George is stuck in that era. Even in the face of the new audio technology, he self-finances and produces a silent flick that ends up going bust. During that stressful period, George has a dream wherein we get our first moments of diegetic sound. Glasses clink, the phone rings, even Jack starts barking at George – but George himself has no voice. He tries to speak but finds himself mute. He has literally lost his voice in a world of movies with sound. He wakes from this surreal experience and the film settles back into its silent format, until the very end. The movie ends with the Assistant Director calling for a cut and John Goodman boisterously praising the actors, because George has finally embraced the future, making an Astaire/Rogers type picture with Peppy. It’s an excellent marriage of story and style that’s only tarnished by the random inclusion of the song “Pennies From Heaven”. While the song appropriately accompanies Peppy making her mark in talking pictures, it inappropriately shifts the perspective from the star, something George himself would certainly find issue with.

The Artist isn’t an intellectual heavyweight, but it has absolutely no need to be, and it’s only faults are when it tries to be. The film is ridiculously charming and warmly nostalgic for the simpler films of a bygone era. No one should be turned off by the fact that it’s a silent film, because the music and the cast will engage your full attention and enjoyment the whole way through.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Even the story’s romance is surprisingly subdued – the stars don’t really get together in any open romantic sense until the third act.
  • The conflict at the end between George and Peppy seemed inflated, after he ran out of her house. It was resolved so simply (Peppy telling him that she just wanted to take care of him) that there really shouldn’t have been any conflict to begin with.
  • George’s aversion to sound reaches ridiculous levels, getting scared off by a police officer talking to him and harangued by mental images of mouths making words. That was a bit silly.
  • However, I was all for the delirium that George drank himself into. Not on any principled stance, of course, but simply because it gave us tiny George attacking his larger form with a rifle, and George’s shadow castigating and leaving him in his screening room.
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