Monday, January 23, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Don't adjust your audio/video settings, and definitely don't try to raise the volume -- and most of all, don't fear, as you're brand new 55-inch [obscene dollar figure] LED flat-screen is not broken.

In an effort to pay homage to early 20th century cinema, where films were silent and screens were dark, Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist is, appropriately, a silent film. To show my true appreciation for this work, I thought it might be prudent to write a silent review, and leave the space blank. But then I thought better of it.

The film begins in the mid-to-late 1920's during the final stretch of the golden age of silent films in Hollywood. We are immediately introduced to George Valentin, played by French actor Jean Dujardin, who is a pioneer of silent films. He is loved and adored by all, has his face on every poster, and is the biggest star in Hollywood -- and Valentin certainly enjoys the attention. Not to say that he is narcissistic; with a winning smile and just right amount of charm, Dujardin plays the part brilliantly, solidifying Valentin as a bonifide, humble star who deserves all his fame and fortune. Or in his words, his an "an artist."

The character interacts and appreciates his fans, and even befriends one right away in unique circumstances. The seemingly random stranger, we come to learn, goes by the name Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), is an aspiring actress, and she does not stay random for long.

The purpose of The Artist is to not simply pay homage to silent films of yesteryear, but to also help the viewer understand exactly what happened to films sometime between World War I and World War II. When silent films became obsolete, so did the silent actors. Not equipped or trained for audio films -- or "talkies," as they were known then -- they vanished, and were left to be forgotten.

One day, Valentin is called into the big studio executive's, Al Zimmer's (John Goodman) office, where he is shown the first ever sound test to present audio onto the big screen. While Zimmer tells Valentin that "this is the future of film," Valentin simply laughs it off, thoroughly unconvinced that it will appeal to the masses.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in The Artist.
Peppy Miller meanwhile, finally gets her break when, after being cast as an extra in one of Valentin's films, she continues to get more roles, each bigger than the next, until finally becoming a star in her own right. Young, beautiful and with a fresh face and distinctive "mark" on her face, she becomes the new poster child for Hollywood. This is solidified, finally, when Zimmer signs her to a mega-deal to be his star actress in his talking pictures. And all the while, she maintains her friendship with Valentin, who she idolizes and even reveres.

And that begins the upward climb for Miller, coinciding with the downward spiral for Valentin, who sees his career free-fall once movies finally made the full transition from silent pictures to talkies.

Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, is -- at the risk of sounding corny -- a true piece of art. While Hazanavicius chose to make his film silent, and in black and white as a way of honoring old films, he also toys with the sound, actually using it at times to convey his points.

The charming and affable Valentin is meant to be a sympathetic figure, but that's not to say he is perfect. Far from it, in fact, as he neglects his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), and, when his career takes a turn, he mistreats those who were loyal to him, like his driver, (James Cromwell). No longer necessary, he dismisses them at the drop of a hat -- just like what the movie industry did to him.

When things are going well, Valentin is bubbly, effervescent and charismatic, and so is the film as a whole, with the buoyant, upbeat music conveying such. But when things are the opposite, Valentin, and The Artist, are as dark as the black-and-grey screen we are watching them on. Jean Dujardin might have been an unknown before this, but it may be that he was put on this planet solely for this role. He is George Valentin, and simply with one look, he can make you adore Valentin, and at other times, make you want to jump through the screen and give him a huge, comforting hug. He is that good, and when it's all said and done, it would not surprise me in the least to see him take home the Oscar for Best Actor.
Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller.

Berenice Bejo, meanwhile, another "unknown," is also terrific, and should have an Oscar nomination coming her way tomorrow morning as well.

Miller and Valentin serve as perfect foils in the film. Though both immensely talented, one is youthful, and one a bit more elderly, one an up-and-coming star and one the established veteran who is on the way out. It's the same disconnect that exists between William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder's 1950 classic that also pays homage to the silent-actors long forgotten.

If the silence throughout isn't enough to ingrain The Artist into your subconscious long after the movie is finished, then the performances by Dujardin and Bejo should be, and will make you sit in awe, silently reflecting and appreciating a true piece of art.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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