THE ARTIST (2011, France)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A hugely popular silent film idol must adjust to culture shock when “talkies” suddenly invade the movie business.

Is there a movie more in love with the First Golden Age of Hollywood than The Artist?  I can’t think of one.  Sunset Blvd. comes close, but that was a caustic commentary on the heartless tendencies of studio executives to reject the Old and embrace the New.  The Artist covers the same ground, but in a much more comic fashion.

Not to say The Artist pulls its punches.  Not at all.  It tells the story of a silent film idol, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who has a meet-cute with a fan, Peppy (the stunning Bérénice Bejo), outside of a movie theatre.  Long story short, she becomes a bit player in numerous silent films and eventually becomes a superstar when the talkies take over Hollywood.  And George?  He struggles, as so many other silent actors did, to acclimate himself to a brave new world where faces and title cards aren’t enough anymore for an audience who is always looking for something new.

And, oh, yeah, did I mention The Artist is itself a silent film?  Shot in black and white?  Filmed in the old 1:33 aspect ratio?  Yeah.  It’s actually pretty cool.  It takes a little while to get used to seeing modern actors moving their mouths and not hearing their voices, but after a while, my brain acclimated itself to this “new” way of watching a movie.

As I was saying, The Artist doesn’t pull its punches in exposing Hollywood’s appetite for the New (in ways I don’t want to give away here), but it is still far more whimsical and audience-friendly than Sunset Blvd.  I’d compare it more to Singin’ in the Rain, if I had to compare it to anything at all.  But The Artist is a singular achievement, and well worth the Best Picture Academy Award for 2011.

There are two scenes in particular that elevate The Artist. In one, Peppy, who has always adored George from afar, finds herself alone in his dressing room.  She spots one of his jackets hanging on a coat rack and embraces it, imagining his arms inside it.  She then slips one of her own arms into the jacket, and voila!  She has a brief love scene where it really feels like she’s interacting with another person’s arm.  It’s a little hard to describe, but the effect is magical.

The second scene is one of my favorite scenes of all time.  George has just gone to see one of Peppy’s new films, a talkie.  The audience loves it, but he is still resistant to the idea.  He retreats to his dressing room, but something bizarre happens.  Remember, up until now, the movie has been completely silent (except for a musical score).  But this time, when he puts a glass down on a table…it clinks.  He stares.  What the heck was that???  He does it again.  Clink!  What’s going on???  He picks up a comb and drops it.  Thunk!  What the hey?!!  He opens his mouth to yell…but nothing comes out!

It’s a wonderfully comic moment, and a perfect way to demonstrate George’s anxiety at what this new technology will mean for him.

The more I think about The Artist, the more I’m realizing that the only way to properly discuss it is to go almost scene by scene, and I certainly don’t want to go down that road, especially for anyone who may not have seen it.  I mean, there’s the dog, George’s butler, the release date for one of his movies (October 24th, 1929, oh dear), the auction, the fire, and the deliriously happy ending, the kind of ending that tends to only exist in movies.

That’s really all The Artist is.  It’s an efficient engine designed to pull at our heartstrings and deliver a feel-good ending after teasing us with darker possibilities here and there.  The fact that it’s black-and-white and silent is a bonus, especially for film buffs.  It may not be realistic, but when it comes to Hollywood’s Golden Age…I mean, who really cared about realism back then?  (Back then, they didn’t need words, they had faces.)

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