Friday, December 30, 2011

A Reel Review: THE ARTIST

For the current short-attention span movie audience who needs everything spelled out for them in five minutes or less, sitting through a black-and-white silent film would likely be torture equal to nails on a chalkboard, and cynical audiences may look at a silent film made in 2011 as a gimmick to gain attention. THE ARTIST is neither; it is a silent film telling the story of the death of silent film in the 1920’s. That is its hook, its magic, and its gift.

In 1927 Hollywood, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. He meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a talented actress and dancer looking to break into the business, and the two fall for each other. George encourages her, inspires her, and gets the studio boss Mr. Zimmer (John Goodman) to give her a role. Peppy embraces the new technology of “talking film”, and her career skyrockets. George meanwhile sees the new “talkies” as a perversion of the art and turns his back on it, and his career plummets.

THE ARTIST occasionally flirts with making a statement about the art of filmmaking being lost due to new and evolving technology, but wisely lets it fall to the background to focus on the characters. George is a stubborn devotee to his art; Peppy is young and eager to embrace her new world. One falls, one rises, and yet their fates seem to be interlinked throughout. Peppy struggles to keep George from falling into a booze-fueled, self-destructive spiral as his career, money and success disappears, and that is the heart of the story in THE ARTIST; the old being helped by the new.

Director Michel Hazanavicius (gezhundite) executes the world of silent film so well you’d think he’d been doing it since the 1920’s. The absence of sound is never used as a gimmick, and is instead a major part of the storytelling. It is impossible to have the story of THE ARTIST told with sound, as its heart and soul lies in the art of silent film; the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is a sight to behold and love. The titlecards serve as dialogue and to move the plot forward in some very clever ways, and are augmented by a magnificent score that is true to the period and somehow sounds modern. Hazanavicius also employs some clever metaphors here and there; such as a powerful and emotional scene where George stares at a blank movie screen after his career ends.

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are perfect for the roles and also feel like they’ve been silent film stars for years. In a visual style where expressions and body language are so important, there is never a moment where we don’t know what the characters are feeling or thinking. It is perfect execution by the pair that is shared by the rest of cast, including John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller.

In a current Hollywood where loud noises seem to rule, THE ARTIST is an absolute breath of fresh air and a charmer of a story. The timing of it is also perfect as the current movie industry deals with another internal battle; film vs. digital. THE ARTIST uses an old style to sell the future, and that seems to be its genius. Outside of all that, THE ARTIST will charm your heart away.


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