Hollywood 1927: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has it all. He is a huge star on the silent silver screen and his fans adore him. When he first learns that “talkies,” movies with sound, are becoming the latest fad, he disregards it as just that – a fad – and puts all of his money into an epic action adventure - silent, of course. But this proves to be the downfall of “The Artist.”
Jean Dujardin and director Michel Hazanavicius teamed before on the James Bond-spoof films “OSS-117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “OSS-117 – Lost in Rio. In those action-comedies, Dujardin plays the title spy, a suave, debonair and ruthless secret agent who does not have a clue. Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (alias OSS-117) is raucously funny and total inept with cultures and mores outside of France. The actor is so good as the inept spy that I could not imagine him playing a dramatic character, especially in a totally silent, black & white movie (except for score, of course). Within one minute from the start of “The Artist” I fell in love with George Valentin.
If you have seen the OSS-117 movies you know that Dujardin is an incredibly physical actor and terrific at slapstick. But, as the silent film star, he also has to do action like Douglas Fairbanks, dance like Fred Astaire and perform on and off the silver screen without using words. The only title cards used are during Valentin’s films. Otherwise, you get pretty adept at lip-reading during the course of “The Artist” and, surprisingly, this was an enjoyable challenge.
The story is an old-fashioned Hollywood romance that harkens back to the original “A Star is Born” with its tale of a star whose career has hit a wall and he loses everything. Meanwhile, an aspiring actress hopeful, who George helped start her meteoric career, has always loved the man from afar, despite her rising stardom and his fall from fame. The result is a charming work that received much acclaim at this year’s Cannes Film Fest – and deserved it. “The Artist” will see a lot of award contention at year’s end.
Director and writer Hazanavicius embraces his silent, black & white medium with style and clever design. The old-fashioned flavor of “The Artist” pays homage to what is considered the greatest silent film of all time, “Sunrise,” but makes its own niche in modern film. I like being charmed by a movie and I give “The Artist” an A-.
In 1927 there was no greater star in Hollywood than George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, the "OSS 117" movies) whose globe trotting spy films featured beautiful starlets and his ever-present costar, a scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier. Two years later, Kinograph head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) decides to promote his new sound movies with new faces and Valentin, convinced talkies are a fad, chooses to go off on his own and make an independent stance as "The Artist."
Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and his star Dujardin made their names spoofing James Bond films with their French language "OSS 117" films (which were actually derived from an original pre-Bond source). Those were fun exercises which showed a talent for visual gags and great comedic timing with Dujardin a true throwback. Now they up their artistry with a more universal story told without sound that plays as if Chaplin had originally made "Singin' in the Rain" twenty-five years earlier. Hazanavicius is so in tune with his material, he knows when to use a title card (sparingly) or when to let his audience read his actors' lips to get a laugh and his screenplay tucks the silent vs. sound argument as subtext within his narratives (i.e., Valentin's films). Dujardin, who won Best Actor at Cannes for this role, is perfection and Hazanavicius's wife, Bérénice Bejo ("OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies") puts herself firmly on the map as Peppy Miller, the flapper George helps into the business only to see her star supplant his own.
The film impresses immediately as cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman ("OSS 117.."), shooting in 1:33 aspect ratio with color film for black and white, and production designer Laurence Bennett ("Crash," "The Next Three Days") show us a theater audience so immaculately arranged that the men's tuxedos and women's gowns form an eye-popping houndstooth pattern on the screen. Valentin delights the audience in person with his amazing terrier, who drops dead when a 'gunshot' is 'fired.' Off stage, Zimmer is jovial, but costar Constance (Missi Pyle, "Big Fish," "Feast of Love") is annoyed at being upstaged by the dog. Later, during an outdoor autograph and photo op, Peppy finds herself face to face with the star and when he smiles she plays back for the camera. 'Who's that girl?' is emblazoned across Variety's front page the next day and when she enters Kinograph as a dancing extra, who should she run into again but the star who makes sure she's in a scene. Their chemistry proves such that Valentin keeps flubbing his timing.
From here the twin trajectories are the classic rise and fall Hollywood tale but the joy is in the journey. When Peppy finds George's dressing room to thank him, Bejo does a bit with a coat stand and tux jacket that's an instant classic. George's silent jungle film features him drowning in quicksand, the type of metaphor used throughout the film, and a dream sequence in which props suddenly make noise while none will come from his mouth is a brilliant comedy bit. George's disgruntled wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller, "Flipped," TV's 'Men of a Certain Age'), can always be seen defacing his photo in various trade magazines and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell, "Babe," "L.A. Confidential," never better) is the very model of compassion and discretion, continuing to work even when Valentin is reduced to a shabby flat. A sequence where the dog (Uggie) tries to save his master is gripping, rousing and also funny (one of the bits that lets us read lips). Later, Valentin discovers a ruse where Peppy's Maid (Beth Grant, "All About Steve," "Crazy Heart") and Butler (Ed Lauter, "Seabiscuit," "The Number 23") were playing parts, the well-intentioned 'lie' just another script, and it's poignant. The film's glorious ending, which, like Mel Brook's "Silent Movie," features some brief spoken lines, sparkles (and, of course, finally reveals why Valentin was reluctant to speak). The production is terrific across the board, although composer Ludovic Bource, who studied legendary Hollywood composers and Chaplin's music in preparation, lifts a little too much of Herrmann's "Vertigo."
Dujardin is impeccable here and his and Bejos's dancing moves astonish. All the actors avoid the mugging so many usually associate with silent cinema, although they all had to adjust their acting styles technically to account for the film running at a different speed.
Do not let the idea of a silent, black & white film scare you away. Even as Hazanavicius pays homage to the films of old, he's modernized his enough to relate to audiences of today. The story is told using so many different devices - closeups, dance, sound, light, montage - that dialogue is not only completely unnecessary, its lack is a distinct part of the movie's charm.
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