THE ARTIST— 5 STARS
Very very few of us are old enough to remember silent films and how big of a deal it was to transition to “talkies.” Most of us have likely never seen an entire silent film. Not only did it change the technology and equipment, but it changed the craft, talent, and mechanics of acting. Before talkies, dialogue was non-existent and physical performance meant everything. To convey an emotion or expression, you had to move and act with emotion and expression. Few of today’s trendy and hard-talking actors with agape expressions and cool hairdos could ever achieve what actors and actresses did back before talkies. The acting also wasn’t manic like when we play charades at a party and we couldn’t talk to convince someone what we were acting out. It was more than that. It was the beauty and power of single looks and precise movements, driven by beautiful film scores that meant something before they became filler.
The ambitious new film, The Artist, triumphantly conquers that challenge. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is more than just an homage to the silent film era of movie-making. For those who haven’t heard, it’s a silent film itself. Save for a pair of isolated scenes with on-camera sound, it’s shot in the traditional way of the times, with musical score and dialogue intertitle screens. While some might find an hour and forty minutes of that style too disconnected or old-fashioned, it’s an absolute pleasure to see this style of movie making recreated in this day and age.
French actor Jean Dujardin plays the fictional George Valentin, Hollywood’s biggest silent film star in 1927. With a superb dancing talent, a trusty Jack Russell terrier, and a dashing smile, George is the toast of Kinograph Studios, run by the cigar-munching studio boss Al Zimmer, played by John Goodman. While hamming it up for photographers outside a theater and later when going through a dancing scene in a spy movie, he literally bumps into and discovers the next big thing, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s own wife). Ambitious, bright-eyed, and full of promise, she idolizes and develops a great kinship with George. With Zimmer embracing the new technology for sound at Kinograph, she’s branded one of the future stars of the studio and is pushed to top billing.
Once the talkies start hitting theaters, it’s out with the old and in with the new for George. Cut from Kinograph, he self-finances, directs, and headlines one last gasp of a silent adventure film, only to see it trounced at the box office by Peppy Miller’s big starring role. The Crash of ’29 bottoms out his finances and sends his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) out the door with her bags packed. Time will tell if George Valentin can resurrect his career, or if time and new noise will pass him by.
The Artist, with its silent film canvas and classic melodrama template, creates a marvelous and crowd-pleasing story between George Valentin and Peppy Miller. To say The Artist is stylish would be an understatement. The costumes, sets, and locations offer no hint to its 2011 creation. Ludovic Bource’s ever-present and wide-ranging musical score carries the film wonderfully and hits the right cues for the right moments. The period detail is fantastic and the movies-within-the-movie rival those we get to see made in Hugo and My Week with Marilyn. With The Artist winning many small awards up to this point, let me just say it lives up to its originality, entertainment, and hype. The shower of accolades will most definitely continue.
Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo’s remarkable performances are, appropriately, something from another era. His mannerisms, looks, and moves are as infectiously clever and charming as her stares, reactions, and smiles. Their crafted performances in The Artist are perfect. Like I said in my opening, it takes a different kind of acting to do this kind of work and these two actors put together something truly special. Ladies and gentleman, even if the idea of a silent film scares you, don’t let an opportunity to see it done right like this pass you by. The Artist is a brilliant work of art that deserves to be appreciated just the way it is. There are plenty of chances out there for modern special effects and pointless dialogue, but challenge yourself to something old-fashioned and learn how people fell in love with acting and movies in the first place.
LESSON #1: HOLDING ON TO ARTISTIC INTEGRITY AND RESISTING CHANGE— With the onset of the talkie era, George refuses to change with the times. He stands by his craft, while others say he’s from a generation of “mugging” to the camera. George’s stalwart stance hurts his career, but it’s a battle he’s willing to stake his integrity on. Strong or not, it might not be the best stance.
LESSON #2: KNOWING WHAT YOU ARE GOOD AT— Part of George’s artistic integrity is him knowing what he’s good at. Even in vanity, he knows he’s successful at the silent film medium. Resistant or not, deep down he knows where his talent lies and that’s commendable. Stubborn for sure, but commendable that he won’t jump through hoops that he’s not comfortable with.
LESSON #3: HOLDING ONTO PRIDE AND NOT ACCEPTING HELP-– Another part of George’s artistic integrity is rooted in his strong personal pride. With demand his for his talent gone and the Great Depression in full swing, George doesn’t accept help from Peppy or others. He’d rather auction his belongings and pawn valuables than take a helping hand. Even his little dog more than tries to help. When things are depression-level bad, there’s nothing wrong with swallowing pride and talking help.
Showtimes can be found at your local west side Chicago theaters. Advance tickets can be purchased at many of those locations through Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com.