By JAMES MELVILLE
Although I didn’t actually watch the Oscars, I did refresh the IMDB homepage for a few hours while I did homework. Because I’m a professional.
The Artist (2011):
The Plot: In 1927 Hollywood, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) struggles to find a purpose when the advent of sound makes him obsolete. Meanwhile, he connects with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the director’s wife), a plucky young dancer who quickly rises to fame as an actress in Talkies, which are movies with sound, for those of you who didn’t know that. It’s okay, I won’t tell anyone.
I guess I should probably say this now, since I want our relationship to be founded on honesty. This…is a silent film. Yes, that’s right. Just like in the good old days. Barring a dream sequence and one other scene that I won’t spoil, there aren’t any sound effects or dialogue. Just titles, highly expressive acting, and a fantastic soundtrack. And the cutest dog since the Thin Man movies.
It’s easy to say that making a silent movie about silent movies is kind of a gimmick. In most hands, it probably would have been. However, director Michel Hazanavicius plays it straight. The Artist isn’t a throwback to a dead genre, but a lively, inventive film. Part tribute to the history and soul of filmmaking, part reminder that cinema is still alive and well. It blends wit, heart, and a distinctive style to create something that is utterly charming.
At the beginning of the film, George is adorably enthusiastic. The height of his career is a high indeed. The satisfaction he gets from pleasing the crowd goes beyond mere ego—he genuinely enjoys performing. His downfall comes from his inability to accept change. This character—a proud man trapped between old and new—is one we’ve seen before, but Dujardin plays him with such charisma that the audience forgets all that and just gets drawn into the story. Bejo, too, brings vibrancy to her character, making a conventional role seem human. The chemistry that she and Dujardin have drives the film; we care about the story because we care about the characters.
The plot of The Artist has drawn comparisons to Singin’ in the Rain. But whatever that one guy in your film class might say, it’s not “exactly the same.” Sure, it starts out with a silent movie star struggling to keep up with the huge changes in filmmaking in the late 20s/early 30s, but the two films don’t have much in common beyond premise and setting. Bejo’s character is no Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds in Rain). Peppy rises to the top all on her own, without the leading man’s help. It’s George who needs a hand getting back on top. One more difference, and this should pretty obvious, is that there’s a lot more singing in Singin’ in the Rain.
Still, The Artist is just as great to listen to as the Gene Kelly musical. Ludovic Bource’s score manages to emulate the music of classic silent films while still feeling fresh. As my twelve dedicated readers will surely remember, that was one of many things that I loved about Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Howard Shore’s music captured both the feel of the cheesy sci-fi movies that inspired Wood, and the quirkiness that made Burton’s film work so well. Bource’s score does the same thing, but with a different genre, and replacing heartfelt quirkiness with heartfelt charm. I guess that’s something else the two films have in common: absolute sincerity.
That’s something to remember, as you watch The Artist. This isn’t an exercise in art for the sake of art. There’s more to the film than you’ll see if you convince yourself that the silence—or the black and white, or the acting styles—are all just gimmicks. Like all well-done stories of people caught between changing times, there’s a sadness to The Artist. It’s not a lamentation, or a call to take filmmaking back to its roots. But the film treats George with respect. He’s not a pathetic figure, and we sympathize with his reluctance to make the move into Talkies, even if we understand that yes, that’s the way it’ll have to be.
The Artist is a reminder of what film is supposed to be. It’s a graceful combination of technical mastery and classic storytelling. The plot may be a little predictable, but it’s done with such charming sincerity that I couldn’t really complain. I cared about the characters, and when you get right down to it, isn’t that what’s most important?
So is it worth seeing? Absolutely. The Artist is a charming film, extremely well executed. I don’t know if it was the best film of the year—I probably would have picked Drive—but I’m still kind of glad it won the Oscar(s).
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