Monday, January 30, 2012

the artist — silence is indeed golden

The Artist is delightful, delectable, delicious, delovely. It's also a mish-mash of Singin' In the Rain, A Song is Born and every Fred and Ginger movie ever made. Somehow it shines up its tropes and old Hollywood plot cliches in such a way that, although not new, come off as fresh and enjoyable.

Valentin meets his #1 fan Peppy

The movie, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, begins in 1927 and spans the crash and burn of the country's assets and the transition of Hollywood from silent to talking films. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film superstar. He can do it all — romance, adventure, drama. At his screenings he also exhibits a flair for comedy with his constant companion, his little Jack Russell terrier Jack (Uggie). Valentin jump-starts the career of his biggest fan and screen hopeful Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) when he poses with her outside of a screening and the newspapers play it up with headlines asking, "Who's That Girl?" He later also helps her get a small part in his latest film, and gives her some career advice, via an eyebrow pencil and a well-placed mole and a title card, "If you want to be an actress, you need to have something others don't." The two are very attracted to one another, but Valentin is (unhappily) married, so they don't pursue a romance.

There has been some rumbling about the use of Bernard Hermann's well-known theme from Vertigo in the last quarter of the film. It may be a bit distracting for the movie buffs who recognized it, but the film also used another recognizable song that has been heavily used in other films, too — Pennies from Heaven. This is all just part of The Artist being a movie about movies.

A man's best friend is his Uggie

The Artist follows Peppy's rise as talkies are introduced and "fresh, young talent" is what the studios want, and Valentin's fall as his career, finances, and marriage hit the skids. Valentin just can't seem to make the adjustment from silence. He begins to hate his life and even his own reflection in  the mirror, "Look at what you've become. You've become proud! You've become stupid!" But the familiar plot isn't really what the movie is about. The Artist takes pure delight in both film and nostalgia. Its reflexive nature is what makes The Artist so much fun to watch. The dog Uggie completely steals every scene he is in, but it is clear that he was encouraged and the filmmakers expected him to do exactly that. This sense of good humor permeates every scene, even through the more melodramatic turns of the plot.

There are nice cameos by James Cromwell as Valentin's faithful chauffeur Clifton, Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin's bored wife who enjoys defacing all of his publicity images, and John Goodman as nervous movie mogul Zimmer. The script calls for everyone to be amazed by Bejo and her rise to the top (and she is appealing), but it is Dujardin's movie from start to finish. He has true movie star charisma. When we do get to hear him speak one line at the end of the film (with a très très French accent) it makes us want to see him do many more films.

Two stars are born

I'm not sure The Artist will ever be more than a gimmick — silent films aren't exactly "back." But it might get folks to pay a little more attention to other silent classics. My daughter has been enjoying Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle movies that TCM has been showing recently, so she wasn't put off by the silence or the B&W. I grew up watching Chaplin and Keaton and even Garbo silent movies with my dad, so I quickly settled in and enjoyed it immensely. What The Artist does prove is that a movie, no matter what the format, if it's good, is going to make a hit with the audience. Vive L'Artiste.
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