(L-R) Producer Thomas Langmann, director Michel Hazanavicius, Berenice Bejo, actress Penelope Ann Miller, and actor Jean Dujardin attend the premiere of "The Artist" at the Paris Theater on November 17, 2011 in New York City. (Getty Images)more pics » The Bottom Line:
Should you see it?
Don't be put off by the silent film label. The Artist transcends the genre and is a true classic.
From French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius
comes something truly unique. A creative masterpiece, The Artist
is one of the few seminal films of 2011. Shot entirely in Hollywood, the film features a French writer/director and two French actors in a story about an American film star and the advent of talking motion pictures in early 20th century Los Angeles. Perfect for bubblegum-popping, ADD American audiences right?
Consider: the film is also shot in black and white; eschews anamorphic widescreen for a 4:3 ratio; and is a silent film complete with title cards and a 1920's-era soundtrack. The Artist
is a love letter to a simpler time, but remains prolifically modern, realizing profound themes and doing what great films do: expounding truth on-screen thanks to a visionary director.
The film's namesake is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin
), the biggest star of the silent-film era and a Douglas Fairbanks
-type with a Clark Gable
mustache. Valentin is larger than life, but resistant to his studio head's (John Goodman
) desire to delve into a new technology which would revolutionize the film industry. "I am an artist!" Valentin declares and sets off to produce, direct, and star in his own new film, leaving his former studio in the dust. Valentin also crosses paths with Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo
), an aspiring actress just starting out. They develop a kinship. Miller is in awe of the actor, but Valentin does not let it progress. He is married to a bitter woman (Penelope Ann Miller
), but mostly, married to his career.
Soon Miller becomes the new face of Valentin's ex-studio and the silent film star's newest epic premieres unnoticed amongst the advent of talking films. As his career spirals downward, he watches Peppy rise to fame and remembers their few encounters. The silent-film era becomes a thing of the past, and with it, the era's most prominent actor. Too proud to act in a talking film, Valentin soon loses everything but his dog. Peppy never forgets her hero, however, and the resounding themes of the film are ones of star-crossed love, pride and the fall, and the triumph of fortitude.
There is so much to like here. Hazanavicius has made an authentic silent film in 2011. That alone is astounding. His cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman
and composer Ludovic Bource
combine with the director to form a team that understands exactly what the period should look and sound like.
Hazanavicius and Schiffman shot the film at 22 frames per second to give the piece that accelerated look of the silent-film era. There are scenes that look straight out of Murneau
. The edits are all carefully done, and the title-cards are sparse, just enough to convey what's needed to push the story.
There are two scenes that must be spotlighted. Both
involve fantasy sequences. First, a drunken Valentin in a bar confronted by a miniature version of himself and another dream-sequence where Valentin imagines his world now has sound, as he puts down his coffee cup and it makes a noise. These two scenes are a microcosm of the vivid vision Hazanavicius has for his film. He's thought of it all.
The film would not work, however, if not for the amazing performances of the two leads, Dujardin and Bejo. Dujardin won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance and deservedly so. He has the wonderful capability of saying everything while saying nothing. His devilish grins and perfect mannerisms tell the tale of Valentin while staying within the realm of a 1920's personality. If, for no other reason, The Artist
is worth seeing just for Dujardin in this role. Bejo is also exceptional as the aptly-named Peppy Miller. Her exuberance and drive are apparent from her first appearance on-screen. She is a spitfire, but contains a gentleness that makes her character complex and gives her shape most actresses cannot convey with a 120 page screenplay full of lines.
The supporting cast impresses also. Goodman is pitch-perfect as the studio head and has the film's best shot as he marvels at a performance near the end of the story. James Cromwell
is dignified as Valentin's loyal butler. Not to be outdone, Valentin's little dog (named Uggie) manages to steal nearly every scene he's in. An apt vaudeville touch, adding a dog to the story was a brilliant touch by Hazanavicius. The entire package is an impressive accomplishment that will make any film-lover yearn for the past, when artists made films.
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