Release Date: TBD (currently in limited release)
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Stars: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Mainstream movies today are typically a strange cocktail of CGI special effects, 3D technology and blaring THX surround sound. So there’s something rather quaint and charming about The Artist, a black and white (mostly) silent film set in the late 1920s, when the biggest technological advancement in the motion picture industry was the creation of “talkies.”
The movie, which is styled after silent melodramas, centers around two characters – George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star being pushed out of the business as talking pictures become the norm, and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a fresh faced young starlet who becomes the face of talkies. Miller’s career continues to rise as Valentin’s falls, but the two still feel inexplicably drawn to one another despite their different backgrounds and career trajectories.
Ironically, it’s Valentin who actually launches Miller’s career. At one of his premieres, Peppy accidentally bumps into Valentin as she’s picking up her purse. As the star helps her to her feet, members of the press begin photographing the two together, causing everyone to speculate about who this new mystery woman is. That, coupled with George’s advice that she should add a faux beauty mark above her upper lip to help her stand out, makes her Hollywood’s newest “it girl.” Little does Valentin know that he is actually grooming his replacement.
Admittedly, making a black and white silent film in 2011 is a gimmick, just like 3D or CGI effects, but for this film the gimmick enhances the story instead of serving in place of one. In addition to helping to illustrate just how out of touch with the changing world Valentin is, making The Artist a silent film actually adds a wonderful surreal element to the overall experience. George Valentin’s life is actually a silent film, so it isn’t just his career that is threatened by the emergence of talkies, but his entire existence. By being in a silent film, he is inhabiting a world that is about to end.
At times, Valentin seems acutely aware that he’s living in a silent picture, including one great scene that take place after he learns about talkies. In the scene, George has a nightmare where everything around him is making loud, thundering noise – including a glass being set down on a table, cars running outside and even a feather dropping to the ground. Another scene shows the horrors of too much dialogue as a well-meaning police office strikes up a pleasant conversation with Valentin that quickly turns sour as the cop continues to drone on and on with the film not offering any title cards to clue us in to what he’s saying. Valentin is overwhelmed by all the talking – without title cards featuring succinct dialogue, it seems that he can’t keep up with the police office either.
What’s impressive about the film as a whole is just how little it relies on intertitles to tell the story. Michel Hazanavicius uses little snippets of title card dialogue to clue the audience in on a few things, but mainly he uses them playfully, getting comedic mileage out of the limitations of the genre. Without spoken dialogue or text, Hazanavicius relies mainly on the actor’s performances to tell the stories. Gestures and expressions become key.
All of the performances in the film are quite good. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo both give wonderfully expressive performances and both seem to embody the era with their characters. There is a playfulness and a charm to their performances, yet they are still able to tap into heavier emotions when called upon. John Goodman, who plays Al Zimmer, the head of the studio, brings just the right amount of hamminess to his role. Malcolm McDowell, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo, and James Cromwell are quite fun in their supporting roles as well. Also, Uggie the Jack Russell Terrier deserves special mention for a great performance as Valentin’s faithful canine companion. (Uggie actually carries a pivotal scene late in the film.)
So perhaps The Artist is just as gimmicky as today’s 3D, CGI-laden Hollywood blockbusters. It’s such a beautiful crafted and acted story that it doesn’t really matter. It’s a throwback to a simpler time when actors had little more than their own performances to tell a story. It’s unapologetically melodramatic and out of style. But, above all else, it’s simply a good film.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.