Artist, The (2011)
Release Date: November 23rd, 2011 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Michel Hazanavicius Actors: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Bitsie Tulloch, Malcolm McDowell
he picture quality is unnaturally crisp and the lighting sparklingly bright for the depiction of a film of the ‘20s. But the experiment in recreating a silent motion picture is superbly realized, with mugging acting techniques, black and white cinematography and static shots, classic scene wipes, music, costumes, props, and sets. And finally, the story is manufactured to resemble the simple yet powerful tales that might be found in a Chaplin masterpiece. There’s humor, drama, romance, action, tragedy, and even dancing. It’s a painstakingly detailed, authentic, absolutely refreshing concept, and surprisingly, not the least bit insulting to the works it mimics.
A silent film premiere plays to a packed theater, with enriching live orchestral accompaniment. We, of course, hear the soundtrack. But what we don’t hear are the voices, for this is a silent film within a silent film. A deafening muteness informs the audience of the monumental success with which the picture, “A Russian Affair,” is received – an artistic contrast to the idea of thundering applause (demonstrated again with a torture sequence in which the antagonist demands for his victim to “Speak!”). It’s another win for star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, portraying a mustachioed cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, although drawing some striking real-life parallels to John Gilbert and an attempted revitalization by Greta Garbo), at the height of his popularity with adventure epics. He’s also permanently squired by a small dog, itself a nod to Nick and Nora Charles’ famous pooch Asta (from The Thin Man series).
The humorously titled follow-up film, “A German Affair,” finds Valentin reunited with a young woman, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who he met briefly at the previous opening. She’s an up-and-coming actress who quickly rises to stardom as Valentin’s prosperity begins to disappear. Talking pictures are replacing silent ones, and Valentin refuses to change, insisting that his fans will come regardless. Charles Chaplin faced a similar decision in the early ‘30s and was one of the few who persevered, but even then only for a time. This theme is also borrowed from “Singin’ in the Rain.” Valentin’s producer, Al Zimmer (John Goodman in a role not too far removed from his turn in “Matinee”) of Kinograph Studios, realizes the potential for the future, and decides to stop production on silent films to work exclusively on talkies. George insists the world goes to see him, not to hear him, so he invests his own fortune to continue making movies – understanding only when it’s too late that the public demands fresh new faces to go with the onset of sound.
The technical premise will be enough to turn away many contemporary audiences (not unlike the foreign language deterrent of 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a magnum opus too often ignored by impatient viewers). But “The Artist” wasn’t made for the majority – it was made for film enthusiasts, critics, and fellow artists who can grasp the beauty of the simplicity and the poignant reaffirmation that a solid story is the only really essential element to filmmaking. Even without spoken dialogue, color imagery, special effects, profanity, nudity, or graphic violence, a competent, thought-provoking, tear-jerking, sensational product can be achieved. The icing on the cake would have been if Peppy’s character had risen from a depression as compelling as the despondency Valentin eventually becomes submerged in, to further magnify their ascendancy swap.
Despite the careful consideration for duplicating a defunct art form, “The Artist” is not a copy. It still adds unique concepts with a particularly creative dream sequence involving noise and speechlessness, a drunken hallucination of split screen influences, catchy music by Ludovic Bource that magnificently captures a bygone era, and a riveting conclusion that truly packs a wallop. It’s an homage to all of the magic of movies from the very origins of filmmaking, a testament to the power of visual storytelling, a clever history lesson, and easily the best picture of the year.
– Mike Massie