January 2, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

I recall when I first heard of The Artist, it was a friend telling me he wanted to see it. At the time I had never heard of it. He told me about this silent film that he really wanted to see but figured it would never get much of a release. Then I saw the trailer for it. Interesting to say the least. I was definitely intrigued. So, I went back and mentioned to my friend that I knew where he was coming from. The movie sure did look intriguing. The only thing left, at that point, was to wonder if it would play anywhere nearby to actually see it. Fortunately, it has come close enough for me to go see and I am very glad that I did. The movie is a wonderfully executed throwback that knows what it is and pokes fun at it.

I have to say that 2011 was quite the year for cinematic nostalgia, and they have, by and large, been executed wonderfully. Just take a look at Super 8, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn, and Midnight in Paris, if you don't believe me. I know this does not have much directly to do with The Artist, but it needed to at least be mentioned. I also find it interesting that these all came out in the same year that the manufacture of film cameras stopped.

Anyway, back to The Artist.

This movie is a wonderful, sweet, charismatic story of the silent era, the dawn of the talkies, pride, bad decisions, and love. It is a movie that I was wondering just how it could work. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a silent film in a theater (aside from revivals and special screenings of old silents)? I cannot say I have ever seen it, of course I also thought the opening 15-minutes of silence opening There Will be Blood was pretty exiting (and it was).

The story centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), he is a big star of the silent screen and comes across as some combination of Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks. The screen loves him the people love him, but there is a big change coming to Hollywood, sound. However, before we can get to that, there is another big development. That development is a chance meeting with a young woman who wants to be an actress. Her name is Peppy (Berenice Bejo) and she gets her start as a dancer before becoming a star of the budding talkie era. She is a loyal and caring friend that anyone would love to have.

Well, as the talkie comes into vogue, Valentin finds himself on the outside looking in. He is a forgotten man left to wallow in his pride in an apartment with his only company being his loyal dog. He tries to find a new way, striking a deal to direct himself in a new silent, but that does not exactly work out either. Depressed and alone, he retreats to watching old reels of his films with his dog.

Meanwhile, Peppy's career is blowing up. She is a budding starlet, yet she has never lost track of Valentin, always following his career. When she learns of what has befallen the proud actor, she steps in to help. However, will her attention be welcome? Is George too far gone to be saved?

Sure, that sounds a little dark, and while the movie is not all sunshine, this is not really a dark film. It is one that plays with the frayed ends of your nostalgia. Even if you have no direct nostalgia for the silent era (I mean, how many people are alive from that era), there is no denying the charming effect that it has. The Artist is a delightful movie which plays the silent card wonderfully.

The high concept is one that easily could have fallen flat. It is a movie that, if give the chance, could win a lot of people over but I fear that many won't even give it a shot, even with the positive word around it. The music is perfect, and writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has done a wonderful job of realizing it on film. He recreated the techniques used, even shooting in the old Academy ratio (1.3:1). On top of that, the performances are also wonderful.

Jean Dujardin seems perfectly at home in the silence. He has a highly expressive face and body control. He really works the camera well here. He is a French actor who has done a lot of work in his native country, this the first time I have seen him and it is quite impressive. He really looks like he would have been at home during the silent era. Opposite him, Berenice Bejo does a delightful job as the up and comer, friend, star, and benefactor. She may not quite embody the perfect look of the era, but her performance makes it work and she presents a charismatic aura on the screen.

The Artist is a really good film. It plays with the silent film, the fears that silent stars must have had, and our expectations as a modern audience. It is sweet, charming, and the characters draw you in and make you root for them. This is a movie to watch, savor and enjoy. It is definitely among the more effective and creative films of recent memory.

Highly Recommended.

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