REVIEW: The Artist [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: October 12th, 2011 (France)
Studio: Warner Bros. / The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Michel Hazanavicius
Writer(s): Michel Hazanavicius

“Farewell Norma. I never loved you.”

It all starts with a kiss for the cameras and the dot of an eyeliner pen. From there a star is born in the form of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) while her accidental impetus to become an actress ends up an industry dinosaur of a bygone era overnight. Silent Hollywood’s finest actor from Kinograph Pictures, George Valetin (Jean Dujardin), wakes one day to find himself at a crossroads of cinematic history with the transition to Talkies forcing him into the background where once only spotlights shone. A bored wife at home (Penelope Ann Miller), a producer (John Goodman) knowing the future held no room for silent stars, and an ego too large to acknowledge the need for evolution leave him stranded amidst depression and empty bank accounts. Only young Peppy seems to care, but her newfound success makes it difficult for him to take her compassion as anything more than charity.

A melodramatic tale of pride preventing a man from growing inside an industry as fickle as the pictures, Michel Hazanavicius‘s film brilliantly intrigues despite its simple story by using the subject’s era’s most striking characteristic as its greatest asset. The Artist becomes a testament to its stunning handle on the silent film aesthetic long dead because we are so far removed from it origins. Sound took cinema by storm so forcefully in 1927 that two friends accompanying me in 2012 had never seen a silent film before. A magical demonstration of the past and a uniquely impossible format to be used at a time when actors are as much voice as looks, one can’t help love it for bravely existing in multiplexes at their most uninspired and capitalistic today. Nostalgia reigns supreme with this archaic format at once both fond recollection for old and fresh new vision for young.

A love letter on behalf of Hazanavicius, one sees his historical knowledge in each frame. Making it a sort of meta-narrative about the form by portraying its demise through it, we watch Dujardin and Bejo transform into the likes of Fairbanks and Crawford. His Valentin is introduced via his character’s newest film; one recalling the actor’s and Hazanavicius’ own successful spy spoof series, OSS 117, which allowed them to achieve financing here. Valentin is a hero among men battling villainy with an impressively trained dog at his side. Well aware of his success, the premiere’s curtain call becomes a one-man show while his leading lady (Missi Pyle) scowls with rage in the wings. George is a ham and therefore perfectly built to mug for cameras and entertain the masses. So charismatic, only a light bump into Miller outside the theatre is needed to instill her with the desire to achieve the level of fame he so easily exudes.

Times are tough, tough, and George’s days in the limelight are soon a distant memory. Let go from Kinograph in lieu of a more youthful cast led by Peppy with vibrant voices to enchant audiences, the actor decides to liquidate everything so he can craft a great work himself as writer, director, and star. Tears of Love debuts the same night as Miller’s starring debut and the results finally prove no amount of ego will help him survive an inevitable fall from grace. She rises to heights never imagined as he stumbles into an abyss of auctions, divorce, and the bottle. The juxtaposition of trajectories is one shown with immense care as their crossing paths—albeit unknown—help bolster the idea of a relationship we’ve hoped would occur since their first kiss outside La Reina set their futures in motion.

Hazanavicius incorporates all the devices silent films utilized back in their day to perfection as we watch Peppy’s name move to the top of her film credits in a montage begun with first name misspelled. It’s a fade of text to mirror first Valentin’s myriad heroic roles and then the depleting checks as his passion project proves too costly after the stock market crashes. One name gains importance while the other devolves into being worth less than the paper it’s drawn on. But what makes the love story at its back so endearing is how she never forgets what he did for her while despite him becoming ever more bitter. Wanting nothing more than to help in his time of need, his bullheaded pride only allows him to tumble faster into the oblivion waiting inside the barrel of a gun.

So many sequences stick with you whether Dujardin and Bejo enchanting through take after take of their first scene together—a palpable love in the air causing them to break character and get lost in each other’s eyes; a nightmare of sound where everything around Valentin makes noise but his own voice; or the very Citizen Kane-esque shots of our star sitting in silence at the dinner table with wife Doris and his eventual tantrum culminating in his personal film library being engulfed in flames. But like ‘Rosebud’, Valentin holds tight to the one canister that can save him when his abrasive mistrust of friends threatens to break his resolve. It’s a clichéd reveal that works within the hyper-stylized melodrama unfolding and resonates clearly in conjunction with Dujardin’s impossibly wide smile full of a spark rarely seen in today’s downtrodden society.

The cast is chock full of recognizable faces, but the most memorable come from James Cromwell‘s ever-obedient and honest chauffeur, Goodman’s broadly comedic larger-than-life producer, Pyle’s diva whom we all assume was commonplace within the fraternity of actresses caught playing second fiddle, and of course Uggie the dog stealing scenes from his human counterparts. But without Bejo—the director’s real life wife—and especially Dujardin, The Artist would merely be a fun romantic romp dripping with cinematic history while enchanting a populace that revels in gimmicks with one they’ve not seen since “Buffy’s” Hush. If not for Jean’s face capturing our imagination so fearlessly and with ease to render words unnecessary, the format would never come to life as it so naturally does from its aesthetically aged opening titles to a pitch perfect tap dancing finale.

Would it stand up against the masterpieces of the silent era? Probably not, but as homage it is brilliantly conceived. Whether it even stands the test of time or not becomes a lesser detail than the fact it hopefully will prove to a world too reluctant to give silent films a shot that a lack of sound most assuredly never equals a shortage of wonderment.

[1] Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller in Michel Hazanavicius’s film THE ARTIST Photo by: The Weinstein Company
[2] John Goodman as Al Zimmer in Michel Hazanavicius’s film THE ARTIST Photo by: The Weinstein Company
[3] Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller & Malcolm McDowell as The Butler in THE ARTIST
Photo: Peter Iovino © 2011 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

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