Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Enchanting "Artist" salutes black, white, and silence

The Artist (2011)
100 min., rated PG-13. 
There's so much chatter in the world that silence really is golden. Already, "The Artist" is being oversold as a Best Picture nominee and in many pundit circles, it's being called a pure novelty. But for once, the attention is well-deserved and it should be highly considered. It could have just stopped as a cute, scholarly gimmick evoking the retro spirit of the Silent Film Era, but it's more of an inspired, joyous, and loving love letter to film as a whole, whether it be "silents" or "talkies." French director Michel Hazanavicius doesn't merely replicate the style, with the black-and-white photography, no spoken dialogue, a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, art deco titles and infertitles, iris wipe transitions, and exaggerated acting style, but gradually changes the rules and makes it his own special entity. Aside from there being no overly meticulous attempt to recapture the choppy projection speed and the mugging performances being not as campy, "The Artist" is pretty letter-perfect in its look that it could be mistaken for a film made in the 1920s. 

Hollywood, 1927: silent-movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is on top of the world. At his latest movie premiere, he hogs the spotlight from his co-star (Missy Pyle) and basks in the adoration of his applauding fans on stage with his Jack Russell terrier (played by Uggie). During an outside interview, a fan falls into his path and plants a kiss on his cheek for the newspapers. George's wife (Penelope Ann Miller) is not amused by the photo and headline "Who's that girl?" spread across Variety's front page, but the young woman's name is Peppy Miller (Argentinian/French actress Bérénice Bejo, the director's wife), and she breaks into the business as an ingenue on Valentin's new movie. By 1929, the head of Kinograph Studios, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), stops production on silent films and breaks the news to George that talkies are the future. George finances his own movie, another silent adventure picture that he stars in and directs, but it flops during the Crash of 1929. As Peppy becomes the "toast of the town," her rise is George's fall.

As movies of the new age solely rely on sound, "The Artist" conveys a lot more even without a spoken word. The story is simple, grabbing bits from "A Star Is Born" and "Singin' in the Rain," that dialogue would feel unnecessary (however, it's not always difficult to read lips). The opposite character trajectories for George and Peppy hold a surprising amount of emotion. While George's depression puts a small hole in the elegantly tight pacing longer than it had to, the story is told through mere showing and each emotion is underscored by Ludovic Bource's romantic, spirited, somber, wrenching, and operatic score. Peppy has a wonderfully classic bit all by herself and George's coat stand in his dressing room. Another inventive bit uses foley sounds as some witty comedy during a nightmare sequence, where George is assaulted by sound effects emanating from his dressing-room props but can't hear himself talk. Then there's a metaphor for George's fall into his darkest hour that speaks volumes even in silence: the former star stands in the back of a poorly attended theater of his latest, featuring him drowing in quickstand. Uggie the dog saves his master in one of the film's rousing moments, and everything builds to an unexpected and finally poignant arc. 

Having worked with Hazanavicius before in paying homage to '60s spy movies ("OSS 177"), Dujardin exudes charisma with his winning smile and pencil-thin mustache. Like a combination of Gene Kelly and Errol Flynn, the debonair actor looks just like a real matinee idol from the bygone days, with deft physical comedy and tap-dancing skills to boot. Also, without saying a word, we feel his turmoil and root on his success. Bejo is effervescent and charming, embodying the style of a former flapper. She's never treated as a vain, snooty villain either, but a plucky, talented young woman just trying to "make it." The leads are engaging and expressive even when they flap their gums and nothing comes out. Even for not being stars, Dujardin and Bejo would still shine in a contemporary romantic-comedy. The finale's splashy tap-dancing number is a genuine treat, displaying the stars' moves without any cuts. Recognizable faces turn up and never overplay their roles, including Penelope Ann Miller as George's frosty, unhappy wife; John Goodman as the blustery studio boss; and James Cromwell as George's loyal chauffeur Clifton. Missi Pyle, as George's co-star Constance annoyed for being upstaged by the star and his pooch, actually has a face for the silent-film medium with her broad comic styling and melodramatic expressions. 

Executed as an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, "The Artist" is funny, clever, affectionate, visually gorgeous, and immensely enjoyable. Cinephiles and nostalgics should eat up this enchanting evocation with a golden spoon and find a mouth-watering double-bill with Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." If any mainstream moviegoer resists when catching wind that it's a French B&W silent film, they should certainly reconsider. Take a chance on "The Artist": it's a beguiling, irresistible delight. 

Grade: A - 

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