Movie Review: ‘The Artist’ Shannon’s Take
I’ve been frantically trying to catch up on every movie that I should see before Oscar night, but for some reason, I have continuously shovedThe Artist to the bottom of the screener pile for months. I found it difficult to conjure up much enthusiasm for a film that is not only silent but filmed entirely in black and white. What’s the big deal? Why is this film a frontrunner for the heated Best Picture race? It looked dull and tedious. Wrong, on both accounts.
The Artist is one of the most charming films I have ever seen. It’s a wonderful tribute to the golden age of film, all the while managing to feel wholly original and exhilarating. It’s little wonder it has emerged as a critical darling this season. There’s nothing else quite like it. A dashing hero (Jean Dujardin) and a coquettish ingénue (Berenice Bejo) whirl their way through a tale of romance, melancholy, loss and redemption.
Dujardin is George Valentin, the debonair reigning king of silent film who stars in swashbuckling adventures that enthrall the audiences who are devouring this new form of entertainment. Valentin is a contract performer for a major film studio, and expertly uses his good lucks and charisma to market whatever film project he is promoting. The result is mass chaos whenever he shows up on a red carpet event. He knows how to work the crowd, and women strain to catch a glimpse of him.
One day a clamoring cutie named Peppy Miller finds herself face to face with her idol when she stumbles out from behind the velvet rope, and it is Kismet. The two have instant chemistry, and take the opportunity to ham it up for the camera. The next day the photos are splashed across the front page of every newspaper across the nation, and everyone wants to know who the mystery girl is. Peppy’s brush with fame inspires her to pursue her dreams of being a star, and she auditions for bit part in George’s next film. Not only does she snag the part, but she gets to spend some stolen (though chaste) moments with George, who offers some words of advice to the ambitious starlet. Though he is obviously transfixed by Peppy, he is married, and honors that commitment.
This all takes place on the crux of a development that will change the future of film forever: the arrival of “talking pictures”. George eschews the new type of movies being made as a silly fad, while Peppy embraces the future, and becomes one of the fresh faced performers at the same studio that represents George. In an ironic twist of fate, George sees his star plummet to the ground at the very same time Peppy’s explodes. After several years, the once proud George finds himself penniless and broken, while Peppy is at the toast of Hollywood. However, Peppy has never forgotten her crush. It’s wonderfully romantic.
Dujardin and Bejo are magnificent in their respective roles. Since there is no spoken dialogue in the film, the two must convey every single emotion with highly nuanced facial expressions and body language. There are some subtitles that provide sparse bits of dialogue, but the movie relies almost completely on the performances of the two principals. Director Michel Hazanavicius (Bejo’s real-life husband) coaxes some magic from the pair; they also deliver one hell of a dance sequence in the movie that left me giddy. It’s a throwback to the musicals of the 50s, something we don’t see today. I can imagine the nostalgia it will inspire in older Academy members, so I think its chances for taking home the big prize are better than ever.
Though this film deals with the transition from silent to speaking film, it reminded me of the times when big actors were under contract with major studios like MGM, then gradually a new model was adapted. Gone today are the days when a particular actor guarantees a big box office opening. Even recent heavyweights like Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks are capable of faltering at the box office. We’re on to the next era, where actors are plucked from obscurity in order to cut budget costs and studios cross their fingers that every once in a while they will hit the bulls-eye with a mega franchise like Twilight or Fast Five. Someday we’ll be waxing poetic about the stars of the ’80s and ’90s (I’ve already begun doing so).
Despite the lack of color, The Artist boasts sumptuous cinematography. You won’t even notice that it is in black and white. The characters pop on the screen, and Hazanavicius perfectly frames the shots so that you can focus on their faces, which are the centerpiece of the story. I’m not even going to touch on the controversy swirling around the score of The Artist, but as far as I am concerned, it’s perfect for the film; punchy and kicky at times, soft and subtle at others. This is one of those films in which the score actually becomes an integral character.
I would be remiss without mentioning some of the excellent supporting players in the film. John Goodman plays Al Zimmer, George’s longtime boss and friend who agonizes over releasing George from his contract. Then there is Uggie, the Jack Russell dog who has catapulted to fame after his endearing performance as George’s loyal canine companion (and co-star). Do yourself a favor and believe the hype – The Artist is one of the most entertaining films of the year.
The Artist is rated PG-13. Written and Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Uggie