The Artist (2011)
The best silent film I’ve seen all year.
Set in 1920s Hollywood, The Artist is about a silent film star at the top of his career who takes a charming girl under his wing as she tries to make a name for herself in Tinseltown. He’s riding high and loving life, that is until “talkies” make their debut and the actor finds his forte turning into yesterday’s news. As his protege jumps on the bandwagon and becomes the latest siren of the silver screen, the actor’s pride get the best of him as he risks everything to stick with the old and write off the new as a passing fad. Much to his chagrin, the plan doesn’t quite pan out. Before long, his marriage, livelihood, and dignity start to crumble while his protege watches on, doing whatever she can to help from the shadows.
So how is awesome is it that this movie is out right now and getting all these awards and whatnot? In this day and age, you go to a studio exec and you tell ’em you want to make a silent movie about silent movies, there’s a strong chance he’ll shoot you dead and get away with it. The general assumption when there’s money on the line is that backing a project like this would be a money pit, something only movie snobs and old farts would go see. If it was my money in question, I’d probably wouldn’t risk it either, but that’s the problem. Too many studios today equate bigger budgets with better movies and are more than happy to sacrifice the story if it makes for a sweeter payday, and that’s why these movies don’t get made. It’s been a really long time since we’ve had an option like The Artist to choose from, and now that it’s here, you’ll be wondering what took so long.
Although for a lot of folks, this is a pretty tough sell. It’s not in 3D, it’s not in color, it’s starring two French people you’ve probably never heard of, it’s not even in widescreen, and when you’re not reading subtitles, you’re trying to read lips. Who am I kidding, that’s more of a death sentence than it is a tough sell. But I guess I’m not a lot of folks, ’cause before I bought the ticket, before I took the ride, I was loving this movie. I have no idea what spurned writer/director Michel Hazanavicius to take this inspired trip back in time, but that seems to be the big theme this year, doesn’t it? Woody did it with Midnight in Paris, Marty did it with Hugo, and now that Hazanavicius is doing it, seems to me like film makers aren’t too keen on the 21st Century these days. Whatever the reason, I’m behind it 100% if it’s getting us movies like these.
And nothing against Woody or Marty, but what Hazanavicius does here is just plain brilliant. It’s such a surprisingly literal approach to telling this silent story that it takes a bit of getting used to since we’re so attuned to hearing voices when mouths start moving. I have no excuse for the tragic shortlist of silent movies that I’ve seen, so walking into this was like walking into Bizarro World. Everything is shown, very little is told, and intertitles are used at an absolute bare minimum. But before you know it, it feels natural, you get sucked in, and as you follow this plot that’s driven by body language, you’ll wonder why sound was such a big deal in the first place. It’s funny, I just watched Pulp Fiction for the first time in ages recently, and as much as I love the way Tarantino writes, his characters do not stop talking. It’s not a problem with every movie because some people, like Tarantino, just know how to write dialogue, but it seems to me that the art of subtlety a dying practice.
I feel like a broken record saying this, but one of the most aggravating qualities in a person, invented or real, is the impulse to talk for the sake of talking. Apparently Hazanavicius is on the level, and I can’t praise him enough for it. All too often, film makers and studios underestimate the audience’s ability to follow along if things aren’t spelled out, but this movie is living proof of what little dialogue you need to tell a story that speaks volumes. When his characters make key statements or when conversations are held, we’ll get the occasional intertitle to keep up, but most of the time Hazanavicius just lets his wonderful cast of mutes do the talking, and the system works like gangbusters.
So the story revolves around one George Valentin who’s played by one Jean Dujardin. The only other thing I know Dujardin from is OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, another Hazanavicius joint where he stole the show as the French, attractive version of Austin Powers. If he was magnetic then, he’s a freaking hadron collider now. God, when this guy smiles, you’ll want to get up dance; when he’s at the bottom of a bottle, you’ll want to crawl in there with him. He’s just so incredibly expressive in his physicality and it’s amazing how well he pulls it off without going overboard. Dude has one hell of a face to work with and, boy, does he know how to mug with it. Still partial to Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, but Dujardin is an awfully, awfully close second for best male performance of the year.
Dujardin’s real-life wife, Berenice Bejo, is also fantastic for all the same reasons as his on-screen sweetheart, Peppy Miller. As you can image, these two have a whole lot of chemistry going for ’em and they just light up the screen when they’re together. Again, what a face, and these two can cut some rug like you wouldn’t believe. Bonus points for Valentin’s totally awesome Jack Russell Terrier who makes that Hollywood hack Lassie look like a bow-legged mutt with canine scurvy.
And while I still have to hear what Reznor and Ross put together for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, they’re gonna have some stiff competition with this score in the running. Not only is it pitch-perfect throughout and easy on the ears, it’s so cool to watch the music guide the action and vice-versa as though it’s a supporting character. Only worry is that it might not be eligible come awards season since one of songs is “Pennies from Heaven,” and that’s the kind of hooey that’s gotten some of the best scores disqualified. Freakin’ Academy…
Anyway, it’s more than deserving of all the acclaim it’s continuing to garner even if it’s not my #1 for the year. I can see how some folks would take this is as a love letter to the silent era, but to me, that’s selling it short. Aside from its great little story about love, redemption, and the tides of change; aside from its phenomenal premise that had me sold from the start; aside from the achievement it is from both a technical and storytelling standpoint; and aside from having one of the best dream sequences I’ve ever seen, The Artist is just a magical, delightful, and truly unexpected experience that grabs hold of you right up until the last two words that’ll leave you smiling from ear-to-ear. This is how you take two steps forward by taking one step back, and it couldn’t have come at a better, or more pertinent, time.
Remember this when you see Titanic in 3D next year.