Sunday, December 18, 2011

Movie Review: The Artist

The Artist (2011)
Written & Directed By: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman

The Artist is this years most unlikely Oscar contender -- a black and white silent film with two unknown foreign actors in the leads.

The film often relies on parody in order to pay appropriate homage to the era of silent movies; however, it never comes off as disingenuous. It re-introduces techniques of the past, from printed titles to relay dialogue to the audience to an overly enthusiastic musical score. With a plot reminiscent of both Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Artist is an engaging and light-hearted film that is so likeable that it can easily appeal an audience raised on technology and CGI special effects.

The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first "talkie", instantly changing the world of cinema. With it came great upheaval in Hollywood -- audiences demanded to hear the actors they had come to adore, while certain actors struggled with the transition to the point where it broke their careers. The Artist is set in 1927, just as the major changes are starting to take shape in the old studio system in Hollywood. French actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has legions of fans who worship his heroic incarnations on the silver screen. With his natural charisma and knack for expressing himself non-verbally, George initially brushes off the breakthrough of sound in cinema as a temporary fad, something that will disappear as quickly as it came about. What George fails to recognize is that "talkies" are ushering in a new age of film and that actors like himself were on a steady decline. When he falls in love with a beautiful dancer and background actress named Peppy Miller (Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo) it slowly dawns on George that Hollywood is now looking for more actors like Peppy -- charismatic stars who were made to be seen and heard. As Peppy is catapulted into stardom, George is left in the dust, a cruel aspect of Hollywood that remains relevant to this very day.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin
As a man who refuses to acknowledge that his world is changing, Dujardin gives one of the best performances of 2011. He amply demonstrates that emotional expression and actions can speak louder than words -- with a face straight out of the silent era of Hollywood, Dujardin both looks and feels the part of a rapidly declining star. The role is undeniably challenging -- without any dialogue to work with Dujardin is left to over-emote in order to make up for his lack of ability to express himself verbally. However, his actions are never hammy and always feel genuine. He evokes the pathos common with silent film greats like Charlie Chaplin, and he never misses a beat. Dujardin more than succeeds in his role as George Valentin, giving a nuanced performance that it both comic and touching.

Bejo is an equally great find as Pepper Miller. With a smile that could light up a room and spades of talent, Bejo is luminous is a role that nearly jumps off the screen.

The Artist is a vibrant and richly textualized film. Although the idea may not be new and some may argue that the premise itself if a bit of a gimmick, it's an undeniable crowed-pleaser and a beautiful one at that. Director Michel Hazanavicius recreates the world of classic Hollywood and his attention to detail is remarkable. He instils the perfect amount of dark reality and whimsy in the lives of George and Peppy and, as director, he makes some wonderful visual choices (none of which I will reveal here so as not to spoil the fun). Stylistically, the film is flawless. Composer Ludovic Bource creates the perfect musical accompaniment, at times both rousingly cheerful and tragically mournful. Silent films often relied on the emotion of its scores to sway audience feelings and opinion and The Artist makes powerful use of its own score in the same manner.

A heartfelt and beautiful film, The Artist is, above all, a love letter to cinema past.