Mark Reviews Movies

The Artist


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller

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

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 11/23/11 (limited); 12/23/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 22, 2011

Three-quarters of a century after the format became, for the most part, a thing of the past (Some have certainly revisited it in between its decline and now, but such a move is so rare that even the attempt is noteworthy), writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has revived the silent film with The Artist, a loving and direct homage to the period of filmmaking from its inception as a medium until the late 1920s. The film is as self-referential as can be—a silent film released in an era when the style has been forgotten that is set at the time of its abandonment—while also treating every element within—from the manner of performances to the music, from the broad comic styling and expression of emotions to the Academy ratio of its black-and-white cinematography—with the utmost reverence.

While it might sound like the film exists solely as an exercise in style, Hazanavicius populates the story with an assortment of characters (including a dog that is as charming as they come) with clearly definable drives and places them in a scenario that demands they grow. Ironic as it may be—given the blatant escape into nostalgia that the film represents—adaptation with the times is the film's central theme, and Hazanavicius uses the setup not only to display his obvious affection for early cinema but also to explore how resistance to change can lead to devastating results—always with melodramatic flair, of course.

From the start, the film holds a mirror up to itself. The opening scene is set at the Hollywood premiere of movie star George Valentin's (Jean Dujardin) newest motion picture, an action-packed saga of espionage (We assume, based on the hero's climactic imprisonment, escape, and hijacking of a biplane) called A Russian Affair. After the orchestra comes to a crescendo (The almost nonstop music—mostly the score by Ludovic Bource—effortlessly accomplishes that delicate balance of setting the mood without telegraphing the emotional intent of any given scene), everything goes silent, and Valentin, standing behind the screen projecting his image, swings his fist in celebration of the applause that only he and the rest of those on screen can hear.

Dujardin—beyond looking a dead ringer for a matinee idol of the 1920s with his definite facial structure, thin mustache, and slicked-back hair—pulls off the tricky task at hand of playing a man who performs as a charismatic persona in public (the way he toys with the audience and co-star (Missi Pyle) at the premiere) and exists as a confident but restrained shadow of his screen façade in private (the way he seems a disinterested shell around his wife (Penelope Ann Miller)—a montage of different outfits but consistent indifference at the breakfast table). All the while, he avoids caricature and assimilates the mannered acting approach of the era, incorporating subtle but perceptible variations within the duality of his character.

His romantic interest is played by Bérénice Bejo, herself the lovely and plucky embodiment of an "It" girl. Her Peppy Miller is an aspiring dancer, who, like the rest of the moviegoers, has an infatuation with Valentin. The two happen to meet outside of the theater after the premiere, and a reporter snaps a photo of the two together. They meet once again after she has been cast in Valentin's next project (titled A German Affair, reminding us that Hollywood was never one for actively pursuing originality in its endeavors), having an impromptu dance competition behind a slightly elevated screen, ensuring they can only see each other's feet.

Hazanavicius uses a few gags to illuminate the characters longings and fears. Peppy, after sneaking into Valentin's dressing room to leave him a message, slips one arm into the star's tuxedo coat to pantomime a tender embrace. Valentin, faced with the news from the head of the studio (John Goodman) that talking pictures will become sole output, dreams of a world of sound—a gaggle of showgirls laughing and a feather crashing to the ground as he remains voiceless (This, in addition to the film's final moment, suggests that his insistence on remaining silent might stem from anxiety that the public might not accept his voice). Other, equally entertaining jokes play on the contrivances of histrionic storytelling and necessities of the format. A police officer is stunned to disbelief when Valentin's constant, canine companion alerts him to danger; an intertitle substituting a sound effect could mean the end of both or either of the protagonists.

The story is simple, and that is a significant part of its charm. Peppy embraces the talkie, making a quick ascent in the billing of each new movie (Eventually, she is too important to attending them with the public), while Valentin rejects it, attempting to make a silent adventure film on his own. Her star rises; his falls. The stock market crashes on the same day as their movies. His, which ends with the hero's death, draws few to the seats; hers has people lining up in droves outside the theater. Time passes. Valentin's life is in ruins. A single shot of his reflection in a pool of spilled alcohol says everything.

The Artist is a comedy in the classical sense of the term, so the despair does not last for long. It is, though, wholly deserved, as are the inevitable emotions that arise out of it. If the concept of a contemporary, postmodern silent film sounds like a gimmick, it is, but Hazanavicius' attention to character makes certain that the film acts as more.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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