Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Artist Movie Review

They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. So goes the lament of the traditionalist, the old curmudgeon, the aging aficionado who, like me, thinks the state of commercial filmmaking these days is severely lacking in skilled craftsmen to write a screenplay and cut together a coherent film. Perhaps that’s why French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s silent drama The Artist has garnered so much attention and accolades. It’s not just a film shot without dialogue in a contemporary style. It’s a complete throwback to classical storytelling techniques used from the 20’s through the 50’s.


What a movie like this does is illustrate how the inclusion of synchronized sound is often an unnecessary encumbrance on a story. Hollywood made films – some of them masterpieces – for three decades before the introduction of sound. The Artist shows us that it’s still possible to be moved by images and music alone. Although I think it’s unlikely that the success or popularity of this movie could lead to more silent black and white films being made. It’s a gimmick, but one that works.

What’s most interesting about The Artist is the suspicion I have that if it had been made with dialogue and sound effects it would not be nearly as good, even from a story perspective. How is that possible? For one thing we don’t have to be burdened by actors who give poor line readings. They have only their bodies and faces for performance. In the silent era (and beyond in many cases) actors tended to use big gestures and bold facial expressions to build their performances. The idea was that without spoken words, the emotional impact had to be made up with other techniques. The result is that when we watch most silent films today we find a lot of the acting off-putting. King Vidor’s The Crowd is a notable exception to that style and The Artist is more similar to that film in terms of acting technique – still exaggerated, but in a minimalist way. Also I get the sense that with only images and music to tell the story it feels more like a fairy tale. The story itself has fairy tale qualities, but it comes off as more of a fantasy as a silent film and that allows me to forgive it some of its more quaint elements that I might otherwise disdain in another film.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, the film is about the transition from silent filmmaking to synchronized sound and dialogue and the effects of that transition on the industry. In this case, the effect is focused on and most felt by George Valentin, a dashing matinee idol on a par with Rudolph Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks played by the French actor Jean Dujardin. George is the toast of Hollywood, the biggest star at a movie studio run by Al Zimmer (John Goodman). He’s a ham with a big ego. During a curtain call after the premiere of his latest film, he hogs the stage taking bow after bow, primping and preening for the audience while leaving his costar waiting in the wings. Once he finally brings her out he continues to vie for all the attention. Right away, Hazanavicius’s screenplay is begging us to dislike the hero of the film. We laugh at his antics, but recognize that if we knew someone like that we’d think him a prat. So when Zimmer introduces George to sound films as the future of cine a, he scoffs and turns his back. Of course this lands him on the outside looking in when the studio calls off all silent film production.

Where one person’s career falters, another slides in to take his place. That role is filled by the charming Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young ingénue who gets her big break in a tiny role in one of George’s final films. No one but George notices her (her name is spelled incorrectly in the film’s credits). He continually ruins take after take by becoming transfixed with her gaze. A montage shows us her increasing popularity over the next couple of years as her name gradually climbs to top billing and she becomes the new toast of Hollywood after Valentin’s career is all but finished. He self-finances his next film, which turns out to be a flop, his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) sends him packing along with his valet (James Cromwell) and then the big stock market crash sends him into permanent financial ruin.


I won’t reveal the final plot elements of the film except to say that they are filled with all the dramatic grandiosity you might find in a classic Hollywood drama. It’s the charm of the performances by Dujardin and Bejo that really solidify the film. They make it work because we believe them in their roles. George with his self-satisfied smirk that eventually melts into smile intended to cover up his sadness and loss, and Peppy with her bright disposition, her happy-go-lucky attitude toward life conveyed entirely through her physical demeanor.

The film is clever in its use of the silent medium to tell a story of a silent film star’s fall from grace after the advent of sound. There’s a touch of irony in it and Hazanavicius sprinkles little amusing touches here and there like a dream sequence in which George has no voice but is surrounded by synchronized sound effects, a portent of the impending doom to his career signaled by the thunderous crash of a feather falling to the ground or the use of a “Bang” inter-title at a tense moment involving a gun that cleverly twists a convention used time and again in sound films. The film is also shot in the old 4:3 Academy aspect ratio that was the standard for films until Cinerama and cinemascope attempted to compete with television. This helps not only with the feeling of its being on a par with the silent classics, but also keeps tight framing around the actors maintaining the characters as the focus. Since their performances sell the story, they need to fill the frame as much as possible. Of course the film would be nothing without the wonderful score by Ludovic Bource which has to fill in the dramatic gaps left by the absence of dialogue. He also borrows quite a lot from some classic film scores including the controversial use of Bernard Herrman’s love theme from Vertigo intended to connect The Artist with classics we already know and love.

If nothing else The Artist has the power to show modern audiences that silent and black and white doesn’t have to mean something not worth seeing. The power of the story is enough to move people and if that means that more people are willing to take a fresh look at older classics, then Hazanavicius has succeeded in my book.

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