Myth: “The Artist” was not made for today’s American audience.
Fact: “The Artist” is so universal, that it would be hard to sit through it and not find it charming, emotional and powerful, no matter to which generation you belong.
Michel Hazanavicius presents before the Michael-Bay generation, an audience jaded by crummy remakes, special effects and minimal scripts, with a film that draws on both the old classics of Hollywood and the themes of today. It mixes nostalgia with the universal ideals of love and beauty to create a sometimes funny, always poignant piece that transcends time. The beauty of the silent film is glorified in “The Artist,” and although I could write a whole blog post on how silents can trump talkies, I’ll save that for when Hazanavicius (hopefully) wins the Oscar for Best Picture.
“The Artist” tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film star at the top of his game who meets acting-hopeful Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and helps her become his studio’s newest star. The story begins with the charm of the silent romantic comedies, however takes a dark turn once the Depression and talkies hit and Valentin faces divorce, a dead career and the smack of humiliation as Peppy Miller makes it big, al la “All About Eve.”
It’s a story that would be monotonous if not for the silent medium used to tell it and the fantastic cast that sells it.
Hazanavicius does everything to sell the idea of “The Artist” as an old-style film, shooting it in black-and-white and the original square aspect ratio used in Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton classics. Embracing intertiles (the cards with written dialogue that appear on the screen in silent pictures), he not only helps viewers out with the dialogue but also creates a great moment of suspense in the climax in a way modern films never could. What makes his work spectacular is the way he incorporates new technology with old, specifically when he plays with the sound in a way that the 1920s directors were never able; in one sequence, Valentin undergoes a nightmare where the musical score accompanying his films goes silent and everything else starts making noise.
As for the acting, it’s no secret that silent film acting requires different skills entirely than those demanded by today’s talking pictures. Today’s creme-de-la-creme — like Leonardo DiCaprio, who can perform with any accent or speech pattern, and Meryl Streep, who can whisper lines in that deadly-dangerous way — may not thrive as well as Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bujo in a silent film that calls for exaggerated facial expressions, large movement and working without a dialogue-driven script. The two better-known actors, John Goodman and James Cromwell, sparkle in the medium as Valentin’s producer and chauffeur, respectively.
For a movie score buff like me, a silent film is paradise because the music is the main force of the story and doesn’t have to compete with dialogue and sound effects. Ludovic Bource creates a beautiful and sophisticated score for “The Artist” that complements and compliments the film in every way. He both creates original pieces and draws from the originals, like “Pennies from Heaven.” The controversial use of Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in the climax of the film is, in my opinion, nothing but complimentary of the original work, despite “Vertigo” actress Kim Novak’s criticism. Although I agree that Bource seems to have enough talent to write his own music for that scene, it was good to know he, too, appreciates the work of Herrmann enough to use it in what will surely be known as his greatest soundtrack.
There are so many more things I could say about “The Artist,” but I’ll let the film speak for itself or, rather, pantomime it out for you.
The verdict: so far, “The Artist” is my favorite for the big winner at the Oscars this year. Go see it on the big screen in a dark theatre, because that’s how silent films have to be seen. Just be aware; I saw it at the Ragtag Cinema, an art house duplex in the District. Seeing it at your local AMC may be different because audiences may be less appreciative of the art form, something I hope Hazanavicius’ masterpiece will change.