Remember those silent montages in Pixar’s Up and Wall-E that relied on the visual and not on dialogue to get the point across? The Artist is like that but as a complete feature. By all accounts the film shouldn’t work in today’s theatrical environment dominated bad Katherine Heigl comedies, superfluous special effects movies disguised as summer blockbusters and 3D technology. It just shouldn’t. It’s a silent film about old Hollywood made in the style of the era depicted (that means it’s in black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio), and with a starring pair that has never been on a Hollywood marquee or commanded 20 million dollar salaries. In spite of those challenges, The Artist works because it succeeds at being a loving tribute to a forgotten era of cinema and told without a hint of irony.
Jean Dujardin stars as silent film megastar George Valentin. He’s a top-drawing matinee idol near the end of the Roaring Twenties. With a million-dollar smile and a mug that could have him pass for Douglas Fairbanks’ brother, Valentin is living the sweet life. Well, his marriage isn’t all its cracked up to be. But with no paparazzi snooping around who’s to know? She may have been the love of his life at one point; now his trusty companion is the little Jack Russell terrier that appears in all of his films. After his latest film, A Russian Affair, is met with huge applause at the premiere, the star walks out and delivers strongman poses to the entertainment press waiting for a photo op. It is during the impromptu photo shoot where the demure Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) bumps into him while trying to retrieve the autograph book that fell out of her hands. The photographers don’t quite know how to react, but being the ultimate showman that he is Valentin plays along and the two make front-page news in tomorrow’s issue of Variety. The kiss she plants on his cheek is accompanied with the headline “Who’s That Girl?”
Her planted kiss gives the ambitious young actress a boost in visibility that ultimately leads her on a path to stardom in silent films and later “Talkies.” The advent of speaking roles in motion pictures sees Valentin noncommittal and it isn’t until the very end of the feature that we understand why. Pushed to the curb by Kinetograph Studios’ mogul (John Goodman) Valentin takes a financial risk in producing, writing, directing and starring in his own silent feature. Unfortunately, it opens opposite Penny’s praiseworthy talkie Beauty Spot. His silent film flops, while crowds flock to see the perky Penny.
From there we see their careers head in contrasting trajectories. By 1931, Penny is today’s headlines and George is yesterday’s news. Near broke, divorced, and living in a town home (it used to be a two storey mansion), George drowns his regrets with booze. With the success of sound pictures Valentin has become the male contrast to Gloria Swanson’s long-forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, still wanting to hang his hat on his past success as a screen idol.
Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s charming ode to silent cinema flirts with the notion that there is no growth without change. George Valentin loves preening for the camera but is too proud to give up silent cinema even when the public has gravitated to sound pictures. Call it leading by heart and not by head. Likewise, famed mime and visual comedian Charlie Chaplin would continue making silent films well into the 1930s. His Modern Times (released in 1936) is considered a silent film but contains audible cues from radios and TVs, and is also noted as the first film where Chaplin’s voice is heard at the very end, not unlike Jean Dujardin in The Artist.
Hazanavicius was the toast of this year’s Cannes Film Festival and rightfully so. In the tradition of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction - itself a cinematic tribute to the exploitative stories found in cheap pulp magazines in the ‘40s and ‘50s – he has made a film that is a singular work that can also stand alongside the works of that period.
It may not have the rough edit look of the films of the 1920s – the picture just looks too good – and its editing and camera angles aren’t of that era but that’s easy to overlook. The acting and Ludovic Bource’s effervescent score are divine. Dujardin’s performance is a virtuoso one, capturing the silent idols of the time, particularly Douglas Fairbanks. Bejo is a delight as Penny, taking on the “It Girl” role made famous by Clara Bow who would also transition from silent films to talkies. And special attention must be given to the performance of Valentin’s Jack Russell terrier. He’s just a furball of energy that audiences will adore, and is perhaps the best canine character since Asta in The Thin Man.
But the question remains if today’s audience can embrace a film like The Artist. Will they be able to connect emotionally to the story and the characters contained therein, or will they become too distracted by its lack of dialogue and black and white presentation? Only once did an exchange seem to be lost in translation. It involved Valentin talking to a policeman (Bill Fagerbakke) near a tuxedo shop. The policeman talks yet we are offered no slide to see what he’s telling Valentin. Purely intentional on Hazanavicius part, it’s also funny to those who only know Fagerbakke as the voice of Patrick on SpongeBob SquarePants.
The Artist is a niche film that I hope catches the attention of those who are looking to enjoy great cinema instead of just an entertaining movie. It’s intoxicating mixture of past with present technology makes it a cinematic wonder and is all the proof I need to know that as bad as some movies are there’s still magic to be found.
Writer-Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Notable Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter
The Artist opens nationally on November 25th.