Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Artist / **** (PG-13)

George Valentin: Jean Dujardin
Peppy Miller: Bérénice Bejo
Al Zimmer: John Goodman
Clifton: James Cromwell
Doris: Penelope Ann Miller
Constance: Missi Pyle
The Dog: Uggie

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for a disturbing image and a crude gesture).

Here it is 2012. Cinema is well into its second century as an art form. Filmmakers today can put anything that comes into their imagination on screen. And yet, the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar this year is a black & white, (mostly) silent movie about the silent movie era in Hollywood. How can this be? Frankly, it’s possible because Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is incredibly well-made, entertaining, heart warming, and even profound.

Don’t take my parenthetical allusion to the fact that “The Artist” does utilize sound the wrong way either. The movie is not some cheap gimmick that surprises it’s audience by seeming to be a silent movie when it really isn’t. Not even silent movies were truly silent. They had scores to accompany them, and I only wish Ludovic Bource’s Oscar-nominated score could’ve been performed by a live orchestra today. Besides the score, there are also two scenes in the movie that cleverly utilize other sound sources; but this is a “silent” movie in spirit from beginning to end.

The movie opens with a movie premiere, hosted by the film’s star George Valentin, the biggest star of Kinoscope Studios. After a rousing reception from the premiere crowd, George introduces his dog co-star for some tricks and then his female co-star. His human co-star is not thrilled by the billing order. Afterwards, in the crowds outside the theater, George has a very public Meet Cute with Peppy Miller, a woman who will become known as the mystery lady when the newspapers run a picture of her kissing George on the cheek for the morning editions. This is a billing that George’s wife is not thrilled about.

Peppy wants to be in pictures too. She proves she has the gumption to do it at an extras audition where she distinguishes herself from the crowd. Is it a surprise that she is cast in George’s next picture? The two meet again on the set and discover a chemistry that has long since vanished from George’s marriage. But, George, despite his ego, is too good a man to foul his marriage with an affair. The two go their separate ways again, and Peppy finds herself a rising star at Kinoscope.

Jean Dujardin (“OSS 117: Lost in Rio”) and Bérénice Bejo (“A Knight’s Tale”) play George and Peppy respectively. Their spirit and looks are forged by silent filmmaking. Dujardin’s mugging is a perfect reflection of the acting styles employed in the silent era, but he’s also able to bring a slight modern element to his delivery that suggests a deeper character than could usually be found in the types of movies that George stars in here. Bejo has a smile wider than the screen, which is also at an early 20th century aspect ratio, rather than today’s typical wide screen format. Even the wider screen couldn’t have contained her smile, though. Bejo makes the audience fall for her in the instant we meet her. As intended, the dog, played by Uggie, steals every scene he’s in.

The direction and screenplay by Oscar-nominee Hazanavicius (“OSS 117” series) shows an acute knowledge of the silent film era. The movie as a whole could’ve been made 90 years ago. His use of title cards to depict dialogue between the characters is used in the same sparing amount as it was in the silent era. He realizes the audience can figure out much of what is going on by themselves and that too much to read would interrupt the rhythm of the scenes. There is a virtuoso set sequence; the likes haven’t been seen since the silent era. In the scene, the set is a large scale cross section of several levels of the studio offices. A scene takes place between George and Peppy as the rest of the office goes about their business on the huge backdrop. The effect is stunning.

Hazanavicius doesn’t make the mistake of trapping the action within the style he is replicating, however. The two scenes involving sound are very carefully rendered in the context of the film. The first comes after George has learned that he will be replaced by “fresh meat” at the studio to make way for talkies. Suddenly he begins to hear sounds from everything. The items on his dressing mirror clank. Uggie barks. An extra walking on the lot laughs. Only George’s voice is still silent.

Hazanavicius also does a good job filling in the supporting roles with familiar actors that also have a knack for the physical expression necessary to pull off silent performances. John Goodman is just as good as when you can hear him as the studio head. James Cromwell’s performance as George’s butler and driver reminded me of his Oscar-nominated minimal dialogue performance from the movie “Babe”.

One might think that “The Artist” has garnered most of its attention from being an anomaly. Really, who makes a silent movie today? Of course, people are going to think it’s something amazing. But is it really one of the best movies of the year, or just something unusual? I say “The Artist” is one of the best movies of the year. On top of being a great homage to the silent era of filmmaking, it’s a very well told story that is engaging and involves characters for which we care a great deal. Were it made in the silent era, I’ve no doubt it would’ve received the same accolades it’s receiving today. Perhaps, we’d still be honoring it as one of the silent greats. That is what it is.

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