Monday, January 23, 2012

In Theaters: The Artist

The Aritst poster and IMPawards link

The silent film is a form so distinct that it's a shame they just aren't done very often anymore. Whereas filmmakers sometimes will be able to use black and white as an artistic device, few have been able to go as far as eliminate sound. So The Artist is a welcome experiment, a look at vintage Hollywood through the lens of the goofy, sweet romances they made at the time. For someone like me, it's an irresistible approach and I have a hard time being truly objective. The movie just charms; it tells a sweet story with a sweet tone, using the tricks of the silent form without letting the self-awareness get in the way of the emotional content.

Jean Dujardin is George Valentin, star of the silent screen, thrilling viewers in a series of adventure epics for Kinogram Pictures. Also at Kinogram is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a struggling extra who is nursing a crush on Valentin. Peppy buckles down and begins to rise through the ranks, from extra to chorus girl to bit player to supporting actress to star. Meanwhile, Valentin's career is threatened by the arrival of sound; he doesn't want to speak, can't speak, sees talkies as a novelty, and tries to go into business on his own to continue making silents. The Great Depression soon puts an end to that.

In addition to being a black-and-white silent, the picture aims for the straightforward but lightly fantastic style of silent comedies- we don't get the range of visual invention you see in a film by Lang or Murnau, but there are some very nice "gags" and devices used to tell the story in shorthand, and the atmosphere of 1920s Hollywood is very, very strong. The film is energetic even in its slower moments, and avoids being wholly realistic in favor of a more glamorous vibe.

A well-chosen cast adds a lot, especially in a movie where faces are so important. Bejo has the kind of sparkly, urbane sexiness that characterized so many starlets of the 20s, and is charming even as Miller's rise precipitates Valentin's fall. Dujardin, who starred in the writer/director's OSS 117 films as the titular chauvinistic spy, has a lot of Douglas Fairbanks' charm and handles both the comic and tragic angles on his character very well. The always wonderful John Goodman plays a studio executive, and a couple of other familiar faces pop up to surprise us.

The real stunner here is just how compelling the film becomes in its later scenes. Dujardin's downward spiral is a familiar one from this point in history, and though some of it is his own making (his outright refusal to join the sound era), it's hard not to feel sorry for him. It helps that Miller isn't a bad person at all- there's nothing inherently wrong with the new breed taking his place, it just hurts to be pushed out so early. The film's climax is genuinely gripping, moving, and suspenseful, with great use of parallel action and at least one trick you can only pull off in a silent movie. Actress Kim Novak complained about the film's use of music from Vertigo at a key point, but from my perspective it was entirely appropriate.

To a certain extent, I can't not love this movie. It delivers a lot of things I like- metafiction, old Hollywood glitz, an experiment with a neglected form, pretty 1920s girls, a cute dog- and doesn't fail to make good use of these elements.  There's just not a lot wrong here, and the picture has an ingratiating charm. It's a great feel-good picture and a reminder that sometimes, words aren't that necessary. Says the English major.

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Grade: A

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