THE ARTIST (2011)
Directed by Michael Hazanavicius
La Petite Reine, PG-13, 100 minutes
* * * * *
This film has everything that American movie audiences allegedly hate–it has no American stars, it’s a foreign film, it’s in black and white, there’s no discernible sex or violence, and to top it off, it’s silent. That’s right--silent. And if you duck it, you’ll miss the best film of last year, this year, and any year in recent memory. I can’t remember the last time the entire movie audience applauded a film, but that’s the precisely what happened when “The End” flashed on the screen at Amherst Cinema.
Writer/director Michael Hazanavicius is French, but he clearly has an abiding love for American silent movies. His main character, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), is a mash between Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. The setting is 1927, and Valentin is the hottest commodity in Hollywood--a dashing rake who lives in a palatial mansion with his bored wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), a loyal chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell), and the costar of most of his swashbuckling features–a dog named Jack (Uggie). Valentin has a big personality and an increasingly big ego–so big that he tells directors like Al Zimmer (John Goodman) whom to cast. This precisely what he does when he literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a long-legged star struck fan who is so determined to break into film that she auditions for the chorus line in one of Valentin’s films. If you know film history, you know what happens next; in 1929 sound films begin to take over and Hollywood no longer has any use for histrionic actors such as Valentin who mug at the camera but lack the ability to enunciate. They are cast aside just in time for the Great Depression.
In The Artist, Valentin’s decline coincides with Peppy’s meteoric rise to fame. The story–told in the fashion of 1920s comic tragedies–revolves around Valentin and Peppy and where their circles collide and intersect. The script is equal parts touching, sad, hysterical, and poignant. At its heart is the age-old question of whether fame obliterates the real self, of whether it merely masks the dormant goodness that can rally when the chips are down.
This film is clever on so many levels that one would need to see it several times to catch everything. Film buffs will have a field day picking out homage to films such as The Mask of Zorro, The Sheik, Sunset Boulevard, Busby Berkeley musicals, and dozens of other Hollywood classics. Watch for meaningful crosscuts, background detail, and the use of light and sound. To mention just two small details that might go unnoticed, in one scene a destitute Valentin staggers across a street and the movie marquee in the distance matches his fate. One of my favorite cuts was the strategic use of sepia chrome to show changing tastes; color would be too dramatic to show cultural flux, but a few seconds of brown tinting amidst the gray tones makes the point. And, of course, no silent film was completely silent--it just meant we didn’t hear dialogue spoken. Listen to what Hazanavicius does with music and ambient sound.
There is no dialog to speak of (pun intended), but the cast communicates all that you need to know through sweeping gestures, facial expressions, and in situ action. Dujardin is part Fairbanks, part Peter Sellers as he transitions from prince to sad sack, Goodman exercises his swaggering side to capture the soul of a bombastic director, and Cromwell uses his elastic face to make Clifford a blank slate when he’s withholding judgment, but twists it to convey anger, astonishment, resolve or pity. Bérénice Bejo is simply astounding; you easily believe her climb to the top because every time she’s on the screen you can’t take your eyes off her angular beauty, her soulful eyes, or her winning smile. The only actor that comes close to stealing scenes from her is Uggie, the cutest Jack Russell Terrier on the planet and already a veteran of numerous films (including Water for Elephants).
If you thought you’d never be caught dead at a silent film, please see this one. You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.