In an era when a lot of movies don’t know when to shut up, how nice to have “The Artist.” So much of Hollywood is the search for the next big thing (looking at you, 3D), yet the Silent Era and those who clung to its sinking ship back in the late 1920s understood a fundamental truth about motion pictures: it’s visual storytelling that puts people in the seats and keeps them coming back. Michel Hazanavicius’ film provides that all-important reminder.
“The Artist” is a silent film, but more so an homage to those films. After all, what better way to make a movie about silent movies than to make a silent movie? Yet on top of that, Hazanavicius takes certain liberties with the use of sound to impressively illustrate both the magic of movies on the whole and the conflict of the silent film star at the film’s center in creative fashion.
A pair of French actors in Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo star in “The Artist,” a perfect choice as known performers would’ve taken the mystique out of these leads. Dujardin’s charm and Clark Gable likeness make him an instant winner. Together with the doe-eyed Bejo the two have chemistry literally too good for words. Dujardin plays a beloved silent era star named George Valentin who watches his career flatline when talkies become the rage, and Bejo plays his admirer/an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller who slowly climbs to the top thanks to the same talking pictures.
Interestingly, “The Artist” is less a love story than a character study, which makes Hazanavicius’ feat all the more impressive. He and Dujardin work together to find several ways to portray a man whose fame, purpose and zest for life is slowly sucked out of him. A nightmare sequence in which Hazanavicius decides to stray from “the rules” and include sound effects proves clever and suspenseful in addition to being expertly shot and edited. As the idea of sound begins to torture him, we are treated to another reminder of exactly what makes sound so effective in film.
Silent-era humor also exists through much of “The Artist,” which makes it as much about offering some old school (okay, very old school) cinematic comfort food as it is about being a modern art film with something to say. George’s off- and on-screen companion, a Jack Russell Terrier who would hands-down win best performance from an animal (non-CGI) if such a category existed, almost unfairly boosts the film’s lovable qualities. And despite the statement it makes about motion pictures, “The Artist” relies heavily on winning its audience over with heart.
If a silent film is earning rave reviews this day and age, then the score must also be something to behold. Ludovic Bource provides the best of both contemporary scoring styles and the more classic arrangements of Old Hollywood that follow the mood of the film as it goes from happy-go-lucky to dark and dramatic. True to Hazanavicius’ vision and his incredible awareness for how sound will impact the film, there are also some powerful moments of silence as well. He toys gleefully with what we have come to expect from sound in movies and that’s what makes “The Artist” a work of art rather than a film that simply wishes to revel in and pay tribute to Old Hollywood.
“The Artist” excels in its simplicity thanks to this craftsmanship. The audience doesn’t get much to chew on, so presentation becomes everything. The pristine packaging will leave audiences feeling as if they’ve experienced something clever and unique despite the irony of silent film being a century-old medium. If nothing else, “The Artist” will win admirers as well as supporters come the Oscars for providing such pure and simple entertainment in a time when the mainstream offers mostly flashy, loud and unnecessarily complicated spectacular nonsense.
Written and Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell