Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Directed by Michel Hazanavicious
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

I must admit that when The Artist became the award season darling last winter, I became a little suspicious that it was a case of Hollywood showing how cutting edge it was by recognizing something as novel as a modern-era silent film.  It felt to me like that wave of momentum allowed the film to sweep its way to the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor Oscars.  Nevertheless, I wanted to check out The Artist myself to see if it was the gimmick I was suspicious of or the sincere homage that I hoped it could be.  While my experience in silent film is not extensive, I have been watching them here and there since high school.  The silent era is a fascinating segment in cinematic history, and within the first few minutes of The Artist my doubts were alleviated by the filmmakers’ genuine fondness for this past era.

The narrative thread within The Artist is neither complex nor original, the fall of aging star coupled with the rise of his young protégé.  But its simple story is so well executed that it does not matter that we familiar with the theme.  Academy Award winning Jean Dujardin is a scene-stealing figure as George Valentin.  Arrogant but likable, Valentin is the world’s biggest movie star whose smile in your presence (when there are photographers around) is enough to lift an aspiring actress out of irrelevance.  This kind of encounter with the plucky Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) sparks the rise of a protégé.  Stuck in the ways of the past, the advent of “talkies” precipitates the old star’s fall.  Through the course of The Artist, we root for the lovely Peppy to reach her dreams and help poor George regain his happiness.

With a French director and two French leads at the helm, The Artist unexpectedly hits every note right in its tribute to Hollywood’s earliest golden age.  Dujardin and Bejo perfectly embody the performances of the silent era.  Without words to express themselves, a silent performance relies so much on exaggerated body language and facial expressions to get their points across.  The leads accomplish this feat, as do many familiar faces in supporting roles (such as John Goodman and James Cromwell).  There were even some sequences where Dujardin evoked Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks, which is quite the compliment.  His performance is more than an impression of screen legends but is filled with great weight and powerful emotion as George's world begins crumbling around him.  But there is a lot of refreshing lightness to his performance as well.  When George is on the silver screen or interacting with The Artist's adorable Jack Russell Terrier, Dujardin proves to be a great comedian.  It is a performance worthy of the accolades it received.

Bérénice Bejo’s performance is just as strong.  With every big wink, shining smile, and fun-loving dance, you will fall in love with her Peppy Miller just as the audiences in the film did.  She rides the wave to the top but never forgets the person who gave her the first break, George Valentin.  The connection that George and Peppy make gives The Artist its love story.  Their love plants a grain of hope even when circumstances seem their most dire and swells to amazing highs when they can share the spotlight.

Director Michel Hazanavicious carefully crafted The Artist to resemble the films of our past.  From the opening credits on, its sincere sense of loving nostalgia washed over me.  Ludovic Bource’s Oscar winning  score and the sights of old Hollywood with its glittering marquees transports you into an era long-gone.  These were the first people to master a new technology then reinvent themselves to accommodate further innovation.  It was an exciting time to be in the movies, but one where you must have been adaptable to successfully make the transition to "talking" pictures.  When you are on top of the world, it is always difficult to face the unknown challenges that threaten your success.  Through George Valentin, The Artist captures the struggle that artists of the silent era had to deal with and it is an interesting story.

Most of all, a person just has a lot of fun while watching The Artist.  Whether you are a film buff who likes to dig through the archives of cinema history or a casual moviegoer who normally runs away from a lack of color (let alone color and sound), it will be easy to get caught up in the story.  It is a sweet, funny, and touching tribute to the silent era with excellent performances and memorable scenes throughout.

With all the love that The Artist universally received, I hope the audiences become inspired to check out the silent films that inspired Hazanavicious in the first place.  Obviously, masters like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are good places to start but the well is way deeper than those two icons; so deep that I will not even pretend to be an expert.  But I now want to make a conscious effort to become a better-educated cinephile on that front.

Mark it 8.

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