08 December 2011

The Artist

This past weekend I saw The Artist. As a silent film fan I was hesitant at first to see a new “silent” but any trepidation I felt melted away once the film began. Funny, moving, and highly entertaining, it’s probably the best film I’ve seen this year.

The Artist opens with a man being electrocuted who announces via an intertitle “I won’t talk. I won’t say a word.” We soon realize that we’re watching a silent movie within a silent movie. The film is met with “silent” applause and George Valentin, the film’s star, comes out to take a bow and mug for the audience along with his screen companion, a Jack Russell terrier. Outside he literally bumps into Peppy Miller, a struggling young actress, and the sparks fly. The two meet again on the set of George’s new film in a comical scene in which they try to out dance each other. George is intrigued and Peppy is smitten. 

The coming of sound changes both of their careers. When the studios and audiences abandon silents for talkies Peppy’s star rises while George’s goes into decline. With his life spiraling out of control, it is left to Peppy to save George and find them both a perfect Hollywood ending.

Although touted as a silent film, director Michel Hazanavicius has not attempted to replicate every aspect of a silent, which is a good thing. Instead he includes some aspects—black and white, intertitles, 1:33 aspect ratio—while taking liberties elsewhere like breaking the no sound rule twice (in very effective ways). There is also a score by Ludovic Bource that accompanies the film, which is a modern concession; silent films were accompanied by a live pianist or, in larger theatres, by a full orchestra.

Hazanavicius also pays tribute to old Hollywood with numerous nods to classic films from a breakfast scene reminiscent of Citizen Kane (not to mention some of the scenes that are shot like Kane) to the relationship between George and Peppy that at times reminds one of Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden in Singing in the Rain and at other times Norman Maine and Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born.

Jean Dujardin is perfect as George Valentin. Not only does he have the looks (a cross between Douglas Fairbanks and John Gibert) and the comic chops but he is also able to convey myriad of emotions without dialogue. Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller may not look exactly like a 1920s movie star (her look is a bit modern) but her enthusiasm and bubbly countenance more than makes up for it. The supporting cast is equally good: John Goodman as the studio head, James Cromwell as the loyal chauffer, and Missi Pyle as the actress who can’t speak (a direct nod to Jean Hagen’s character in Singing in the Rain). But for me the dog (Uggie), like Asta in The Thin Man, steals every scene he’s in. There’s currently a campaign to get him nominated for awards (“Consider Uggie”) and I say get this pooch some awards, stat.

I saw the film at the Paris Theatre here in New York and at the end the audience clapped loudly. So go see it when it opens in your town. You won't be disappointed.

Photos from The Weinstein Co.

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