Thursday, February 23, 2012
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Uggie, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell, Beth Grant
Running Time: 100 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
The exact moment when The Artist becomes really interesting arrives when silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) puts down a glass and it actually makes a sound. Up until then it's the first noise we hear other than the film's bouncy musical score. Then his dog Jack (Uggie) barks. Actresses walk by giggling. Valentin screams in frustration but he can't make a sound as the whole sequence plays out like a scene from The Twilight Zone. This nightmare quickly becomes reality for Valentin as Kinograph Studios' boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) announces that the advent of "talkies" have led to them halting production on silent films and his services are no longer needed. Watching, it's hard not to think of actors being replaced by computer graphics and motion capture in an age of 3D technology, older actresses being marginalized in an industry that worships youth and, of course, the current economic crisis. Despite the old fashioned approach, it's surprising just how fresh and relevant it all seems, and while it's frequently funny, it's also a bit deeper than you'd expect.
It's out with the old and in with the new as Valentin suddenly finds himself out of work, replaced with a new generation of fresh faces at Kinograph. The freshest is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) an energetic young actress accidentally discovered by Valentin at one of his premieres. As the stock market crashes in 1929 and The Great Depression hits, her star rises fast while he's forced to finance his own silent films, which flop. Kicked out by his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) he's forced to declare bankruptcy, auction off all his belongings and even fire his loyal valet Clifton (James Cromwell). Other than his dog, the one willing to help is Peppy, if only Valentin can somehow swallow his pride and let her before he hits rock bottom.
The big question is whether the film would attract this much attention if it wasn't silent and in black and white, but that's mostly irrelevant since director Michel Hazanavicius didn't just take any old material and tell it in this style for kicks. It's about a specific era and technology and he's using that technology to tell the story it so it can hardly be considered a gimmick. There is sound aside from Ludovic Bource's score (which drew some controversy for incorporating a portion of Bernard Herrmann's work from Hitchcock's Vertigo) but it's carefully placed at key moments related to the story, making its impact that much greater. It's not every day you see get to see a contemporary silent film on the big screen so it does take a couple of minutes to get used to the somewhat jarring effect of seeing contemporary actors in this setting.
You could only imagine the effect if the actors were huge, recognizable names so its helps American audiences are relatively unfamiliar with Dujardin and Bejo and the rest of the cast is rounded out with solid supporting players like Goodman, Miller (who shares a great Citizen Kane-inspired breakfast scene with Dujardin), Missi Pyle, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell. All actors who can slide into any environment, a useful skill here in contributing to the feeling we're actually watching a movie from that era.With no dialogue there's added pressure on the acting, so with his matinee idol looks that recall Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks, Dujardin's not only a perfect physical match for the part, he tells the entire story on his face and with his movements. At one point, Valentin's silent movie acting is disparagingly referred to as "mugging" which is funny considering what Dujardin does here is anything but. You'll gain a new appreciation of how screen acting so often transcends dialogue and the best moments in a screenplay can be found in between the lines, brought to life by the actor.
It's somewhat ironic Dujardin's competing against George Clooney in the Best Actor race considering that he's essentially playing a suicidal version of Clooney if he were exiled from the industry and lost everything. Given Valentin's movie star charisma and nice guy likability it's too tempting not to draw the comparison. Bejo is charming, lighting up the scenes she shares with Dujardin, as well as all the ones she doesn't. And as someone who always has trouble winking, I could also appreciate she has one the best winks I've ever seen. But the most memorable performance just might come from Uggie the dog, the Jack Russell Terrier who seems to display a whole range of emotions that go way beyond merely performing tricks and being obedient. He makes a good case for an honorary animal Oscar.
This runs 100 minutes and that's just enough. Any longer would have felt too long, but the highest compliment just might be that anyone uninterested in silent films would lose themselves in the story without realizing they were watching one. Say what you want about the Academy Awards, but they rarely ever nominate garbage. How this holds up will be determined by time, which hasn't been kind to Best Picture winners in the past. But at least it'll still be fun to see the stunned looks on people's faces years later when they're told the year this was released. The movie doesn't feel like a dated relic from a bygone era and tackles nostalgia on a deeper level than Woody Allen's far slighter Midnight in Paris by actually exploring what it's about. As the biggest silent star of the '20's, Valentin thinks he's untouchable and this sound thing is just a fad, an idea that can almost be considered as crazy as releasing a silent black and white film in 2011. But it's not much the idea that Hazanavicius could do this that's crazy, but rather that any studio would agree to release it and expect success. The Artist is a lot of things, but safe isn't one of them.