March 12, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Since the very first public projection in 1896, cinema has seen innumerable developments through its history; however, none has been as defining as an industry as it was the arrival of sound to film in 1927. While experiments to add sound to motion pictures were as old as cinema itself, it would be the release of Warner Bros.' "The Jazz Singer" what would change the medium for ever. Fascinated by the use of synchronized sound, audiences made the movie a hit and the studios realized that the future was on the "talkies". This would begin a traumatic process of adaptation in which many legendary careers would crumble to pieces while new stars would rise to the top. This is difficult era is the period in which Michel Hazanavicius' film "The Artist" is set, as a heartfelt homage to the art of silent cinema and its stars. But French director Hazanavicius doesn't just set his film in the silent era, he also has crafted "The Artist" as a film straight from the last years of the 1920s: silent.

"The Artist" begins in 1927, at the premiere of George Valentin's (Jean Dujardin) latest film, "A Russian Affair". Valentin, a major star of American film industry, enjoys his success as part of Hollywood royalty. Outside the theatre, when Valentin is posing for pictures, a young woman named Peppy Miller (Bérenice Bejo) accidentally bumps into him. The candid photo that the reporters take of them will mark the beginning of her rising star. Peppy begins to audition for films, and after getting a part as a dancer, her path crosses Valentin again. Fascinated by her charm, Valentin demands her to have a bigger role in the film, against the wishes of studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman). With this role, Peppy's career begins to move slowly forward stardom. Two years later, Zimmer announces that silent films will stop being produced in favor of talkies. Valentin refuses to work in talkies, and decides to finance his own silent film. While Valetin's star begins to fade as time changes, Peppy will become the new Queen of Hollywood during the sound era.

With a screenplay by director Michel Hazanavicius himself, "The Artist" is an old school melodrama that combines drama, romance and bits of comedy to chronicle the fall of silent star George Valentin in contrast with the rise of Peppy Miller, while at the same time unfolds the relationship that begins to grow between them. The result of an extensive research, Hazanavicius's screenplay is full of references and homages to the history of cinema, starting with the character of George Valenting himself, whom is a pastiche of silent stars Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert. However, while "The Artist" is certainly aware of its nature as a homage, Hazanavicius doesn't take the route of mere parody, and instead remains faithful to the classic melodrama style that was so prevalent during the silent era. "The Artist" is clearly the work of a cinephile to cinephiles, a nostalgia piece, and while it certainly doesn't cover anything new (the classic musical "Singin' in the Rain" deals with the very same theme), the magic is not in its plot, but in its craftsmanship.

Because the charm of "The Artist" is in its daring return to the silent era style of filmmaking, with Hazanavicius returning to a purely visual narrative (though a couple of scenes does make use of sound for dramatic effect), replicating the tone and look of the classic Hollywood films of the 1920s. This replication involves a superb work of cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman, whom uses beautiful black and white (in Academy aspect ratio of course) to bring to life this tale of a bygone era, as if it was done with the technology available at the time. The whole production design (by Laurence Bennett) goes to a great length to replicate the silent era, however, beyond the mere technical aspects of the film, what truly captures the style of silent cinema in "The Artist" is simply Hazanavicius' fluid narrative, which as written above, it's based entirely on the visual, with a great economy of intertitles and a great knowledge of cinema's language. It's certainly a gimmick, but a gimmick that's very well introduced into the film's structure.

Acting is of course, instrumental in the recreation of silent era filmmaking, as certainly the way actors performed in those years was considerably different at the kind of work done today. As movie star George Valentin, French actor Jean Dujardin is remarkable, channeling the persona of Douglas Fairbanks to his character, Dujardin makes a terrific performance as the famous star unable to adapt to the changes. "The Artist" is Dujardin's show, and he truly makes the most of it. Bérenice Bejo plays his counterpart, Peppy Miller, the vibrant young actress who becomes the new Hollywood star as Valentin's days reach their end. Charming and full of energy, Bejo has a great charm that truly fits her role, which seems to be inspired by a young Joan Crawford. While overshadowed by Dujardin, Bejo does give her role a certain degree of class and youthfulness that suits the character like a glove. The rest of the cast is for the most part effective, though certainly their time on screen is considerable inferior. Dujardin and Bejo are the stars, and Hazanavicius makes the most of them.

However, amongst the supporting cast, it's worthy to point out the remarkable performance of James Cromwell as Clifton, Valentin's loyal butler. Cromwell imprints his role an enormous amount of dignity and expressiveness, that he perfectly transmits his character's emotions without anything else than his eyes. Cromwell's work is truly one of those little details that make "The Artist" rise from the usual variety of melodrama and make it more meaningful. Because as written above, there's really nothing new or original in "The Artist"'s storyline as it is, which echoes not only the aforementioned "Singin' in the Rain", but also classics like "A Star is Born" and "Sunset Blvd.". In this case, it's the details what truly matter, as it's there where the heart of the film is. Details like the minimal yet clever use of sound, the charming performance by Uggie the dog, and of course, the cinephilia, that cinephilia so deeply imbued in every shot. Without a doubt, "The Artist" is Hazanavicius' love letter to the silent era.

As written above, "The Artist" is a film based on a gimmick. What sets it apart is basically the unusual choice of making it a silent film. However, being that the feat is done by a cinephile, the experience becomes a joy for film savvy audiences. Certainly, this could also be a flaw, as perhaps audiences not so keen to silent cinema may not feel entirely related to the film's narrative style (it's decidedly a film of style over substance). But anyways, as gimmicky as it is, "The Artist" succeeds in making of its gimmick its greatest asset, becoming truly a silent film instead of just one replica. Hazanavicius' talent certainly has a hand in this, but perhaps the secret for this is in the heart that's been put into the film.


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