The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius‘ much-anticipated The Artist, which just finished showing in the Grand Lumiere, is a winning “success,” and at the same time a half-and-halfer — a film that delivers beautifully but also leaves you wanting in certain ways. It’s a black-and-white silent drama with dashes of humor (i.e., I wouldn’t call it a dramedy) that’s first and foremost a tribute to the lore and sheen of 1920s Hollywood. And that much is fine.

If you’re any kind of film buff it’ll work for you and then some, but I’m not so sure about the under-45 set. Monochrome plus no dialogue are obviously stoppers for the majority of filmgoers out there. Let’s face it — The Artist would have seemed like a quaint exercise if it had been made 35 or 40 years ago by Peter Bogdanovich.

My basic impression is that The Artist is a very well-done curio — an experiment in reviving a bygone era and mood by way of silent-film expression. Is it a full-bodied motion picture with its own voice and voltage — a film that stands on its own? Not quite. But it’s a highly diverting, sometimes stirring thing to sit through, and the overall HE verdict is a thumbs-up.

The Artist has been very carefully assembled, but chops-wise it’s not strictly a revisiting of silent-film era language. It visually plays like a kind of ersatz silent film — technically correct in some respects but with a 2011 sensibility in other ways. It has a jaunty, sometimes jokey tone in the beginning, and then it gradually shifts into drama and then melodrama. But it tries hard and does enough things right that the overall residue is one of satisfaction and “a job well done.”

Shot in Los Angeles, the story of this French-financed production recalls the plots of Singin’ In The Rain and A Star Is Born with a little Sunset Boulevard thrown in.

It takes place in Hollywood between 1927 and 1931 and focuses on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) a Douglas Fairbanks-y silent film star who stubbornly refuses to adapt to the advent of motion-picture sound, and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejoa), a Janet Gaynor-like or young Joan Crawford-y actress whose career takes off with sound.

Hazanavicius uses an entire passage of Bernard Herrmann‘s Vertigo score in the final act, when Valentin is at his lowest ebb.

It’s interesting that Dujardin strongly resembles Fredric March, star of King Vidor‘s A Star Is Born (1937). It’s doubly interesting that Dujardin apparenty gained weight for the role, as his appearance today (i.e., in the press conference inside the Palais) is definitely slimmer.

John Goodman plays a studio chief, James Cromwell plays Valentin’s chauffeur, and Penelope Ann Miller plays Valentin’s unsatisfied wife.

From the Wiki page: “Director Michel Hazanavicius had been fantasizing about making a silent film for many years, both because many filmmakers he admires emerged in the silent era, and because of the image-driven nature of the technique.

“According to Hazanavicius his wish to make a silent film was at first not taken seriously, but after the financial success of his spy-film pastiches OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, producers started to express interest.

“The forming of the film’s narrative started with Hazanavicius’ desire to work again with actors Jean Dujardin and Bereenice Bejo, who had starred in the OSS 177 films. Hazanavicius choose the form of the melodrama, partially because he though many of the films from the silent era which have aged best are melodramas.

“Filming took place during seven weeks on location in Hollywood. Throughout the shoot Hazanavicius played music from classic Hollywood films while the actors performed.”

  • K. Bowen

    Is there a rule that silent films can’t be in color?

  • Mark G.

    Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE was in color…

  • Bob Violence

    If you’re any kind of film buff it’ll work and then some, but I’m not so sure about the under-45 set.

    Hazanavicius himself is 44, it’s almost as if there’s no minimum age on being a “film buff”

  • LexG

    Some friend of mine wants to be a director and makes shorts and student stuff is obsessed with the SILENT FILM ERA and likewise wants to make a SILENT MOVIE someday.

    Seems kind of stupid to me. It’s like being nostalgic for chicks with pubic hair, or slavery.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Wells to Mark G.: Yes, I think so. This kind of thing has to be rendered by the rules of the past.

  • Mark G.

    I do like the b/w look of THE ARTIST (judging by the trailer), my post was a comment to K. Bowen’s post…

  • rick blaine

    Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 Cairo and OSS 117 Rio are two of the most entertaining spy spoofs I’ve ever seen. Specifically they take their cue from the first 5 (real) Bond films and Jean Dujardin’s spot-on Sean Connery impersonation, right down to the physical mannerisms, is simply uncanny. Worth checking out if you don’t have an aversion to subtitles. Looking forward to seeing him in The Artist.

  • Ray DeRousse

    Does this movie actually have a point beyond simply recreating the look/feel silent-era films? It’s getting a lot of ink at this festival for a film that probably has no audience whatsoever.

  • Njmoviefan

    Really? King Vidor directed Fredric March in A Star is Born? Somebody call William A. Wellman quick.

  • JasonGeyer

    And if you’re a music buff you’ll find the use of “Sing, sing, sing” totally inappropriate for a movie set in the 1920s. Kind of like using Nirvana for a movie about the 80s.

    Since Jeff is a stickler for these things I thought I should point it out. (Of course, if the soundtrack is full of anachronisms like “Moulin Rouge” was, that’s a different matter. But then, I would imagine they’d really go for it with more modern songs…)

  • PastePotPete

    I was kind of iffy on this just reading the description, but the trailer was actually very appealing to me. It looks more like a 30s film played silent though, IMO. What with some Citizen Kane breakfast table shot homages etc. And Berenice Bejo’s face isn’t really old Hollywood at all.

  • PastePotPete

    Not that Citizen Kane is a 30s film, ugh.

  • Gabe@ThePlaylist

    A few points…

    1) Rick Blaine, totally agreed with you, except that people with an aversion to subtitles need to jump off a bridge. The OSS 117 movies are genuinely fucking hilarious, and I’m surprised they didn’t catch on bigger stateside.

    2) Pubic hair is not outdated, Lex. In fact, it is often awesome. Being against pubic hair is the new “I can’t wait to try the missionary position with her!”

    3) Why do these “reviews” have to have some lame aside about how they’ll appeal to anyone under 45? First of all, this newer euphemism for what you want to say (Eloi) is lame, over-generalized, and uninformed. Secondly, who gives a shit? Let them enjoy it or not enjoy it. Why does this movie need you to “worry” about this shit? I can’t imagine walking out of The Artist and thinking, gee, I wonder what, um, the under 45 set will think? This shit isn’t Consumer Reports.

  • bluefugue

    >Is there a rule that silent films can’t be in color?

    Depends what they are trying to do. If the idea is to evoke films from the silent era, I don’t think there was much color photography happening prior to 1927. Maybe some two-strip, experimental stuff. Of course, there was a lot of hand-tinting done in those days, which has its own look.

  • BobbyLupo

    The thing is, I like silent movies. There’s great artistry in them. But since sound was invented, I can only think of one thing that was filmed as a “silent film” where the message of the film wasn’t JUST “the director wanted to make a silent film like they used to”… and that’s the Buster Keaton ‘Twilight Zone’ episode, almost 50 years old now. And even that is very meta about the whole “silent film” thing, it’s just that it’s much more clever about it than you’d expect from a ‘Twilight Zone’. That episode of ‘Buffy’ would count if it has title cards, or even subtitles, but I don’t believe that it does (never saw it).

    And this looks like more of the same. Of course this won’t play to anybody besides film buffs — they haven’t made any effort to appeal to anybody who doesn’t already like this sort of thing. This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with both film festivals and their audiences.

  • charlesjmm

    This looks amazing! They have that exaggerated acting that you would see in that day, but it’s still better than most performances today.

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  • John Karting

    The Artist…gives us a glimpse of what those silly people in black-and-white … must have found so thrilling, engaging and ultimately heartening when they watched those quaint gray ghosts dancing on a screen they imagined was silver, so unrecoverably long ago.

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