Who could have predicted that the Oscar-winning best picture of 2011 would be ... a silent movie set in 1928?
And yet the modestly-budgeted and dialogue-less The Artist did just that.
French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’ daring update on silent movies is wildly creative, often quite funny, extremely well acted, and peppered with philosophical implications.
Plotwise, it’s certainly breaks no new ground, being yet one more variation on A Star Is Born (young woman’s star rises in Hollywood while that of her male counterpart sinks).
Here we have silent film matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose career hit the skids even as vivacious newcomer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the director’s wife) becomes a new audience favorite thanks to her embrace of the newfangled sound technology.
The gimmick, of course, is that The Artist is itself a silent movie: shot in black and white, with all dialogue presented as written titles and employing old-fashioned gimmicks like iris shots (that’s where the image shrinks into a tiny circle in the middle of the screen).
But the fun Hazanavicius has playing with the absence of sound!
Early on George waits backstage at the premiere of his latest movie. As the film ends he listens intently for the sound of applause.
There is none.
Then his face lights up. Of course, we cannot hear the audience’s reaction. But the gleeful expression on George’s handsome mug tells us all we need to know.
Hazanavicius (he won last year’s Academy Award for directing) brilliantly explores the growing attraction between George and Peppy, the latter tapped to work as an extra in a big ballroom scene. We see the evolution of their relationship through a series of outtakes in which George’s character moves across a ballroom by jumping from partner to partner. One of them is played by Peppy, and we notice how in various takes George tries to spend ever more time with her.
And in a wonderfully surreal moment, George starts hearing noises ... and so do we. A glass placed on a table clunks. Human voices drift into the room.
Don’t worry. There’s an explanation.
As portrayed by Dujardin (who won the best actor Oscar for his work here), George is a marvelous example of physical performance. His bouncy swagger clearly is modeled on that of silent swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, but there’s a bit of Charlie Chaplin there, too, not to mention the musical energy of a Gene Kelly.
Dujardin’s comic timing and idiot smugness were about the only things I liked in the clunky Hazanavicious-directed OSS 117 spoofs of James Bond movies. But here Dujardin is nothing short of mesmerizing. With brillantined hair, a devastating grin, and a self-assured style that suggests a man completely in charge of his destiny, you truly believe he could have audiences eating out of his hand.
Bejo is his equal, making of Peppy a sort of quintessential, high-energy flapper whose fresh-faced girl-next-door sexuality translates effortlessly to the big screen.
In one enchanting moment, the lovestruck girl “makes love” to George’s empty tuxedo jacket hanging on a hall tree, putting her arm in the sleeve so that this invisible beau can hold her in a swooning embrace. Just wonderful.
If The Artist has a downside it is that after a wildly charming, comic beginning, the film eventually becomes bogged down in George’s decline.
Declaring himself an artist, he eschews sound movies and self-finances a silent jungle adventure. Its failure, coupled with the 1929 stock market collapse, leaves George broke and forgotten, well down the road to alcoholism and suicide.
Before it turns dark, though, The Artist is crammed with nifty moments. A sequence which depicts the collapse of George’s marriage (his wife is played by Penelope Ann Miller) through a series of breakfasts is a deft parody of a similar scene from Citizen Kane.
And the film ends with a madly upbeat musical number in the Fred and Ginger mode.
Special mention must be made of Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier who plays George’s pet, co-star and constant companion. The dog shows what silent film acting is all about.
And let’s not forget Ludovic Bource’s Academy Award-winning musical score, about the only thing (other than our own laughter) we hear while watching this film.
It’s not likely that The Artist will spawn a resurgence in silent cinema. But in its best moments it reminds us of what the fuss was all about.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.