Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Artist

I think movie nostalgia must be the unofficial theme of the fall movie season. There are more than a few movies that pay homage to different classic eras of filmmaking, but two of them are among the critical darlings and the frontrunners of the Oscar race. One I've already written about is Hugo, which is a love letter to very early (turn-of-the-century) films. The other is The Artist, which deals with the time when silent films were being phased out and "talkies" were taking over.

The Artist reminds me a great deal of Singin' In the Rain, though it is fundamentally a very different film. The main character is George Valentin, a silent film superstar. An innocent chance encounter between George and an ambitious ingenue, Peppy Miller, is captured by photographers and the girl gets a sudden leg up in the acting world. The film charts a very basic rise-and-fall story. As George fades into obscurity along with the art form that made him famous, Peppy rises to great heights as a talking film star. The story itself is nothing earth-shattering; what makes this film sing (there's a joke there, and if you don't get it, you will in a second) is the way it's told.

It's a silent movie.

Not only is it silent (well, mostly silent), it's black and white and it's French-made, with a French actor you've probably never heard of in the lead and only a handful of actors you might know (all of whom are in small roles). And it's wonderful.

It's a bit frothy, which has made some critics look down their noses at it, but it's a brilliant piece of storytelling and manages to do it with virtually no sound. It might look on the surface like an imitation of a silent movie - just going through the motions and lazily employing the old techniques - but that's a short-sighted criticism, in my opinion. The cinematography is quite obviously not an imitation of the silent style, nor is the music or (again, despite surface appearances) the acting. The movie actually looks, photography wise, like a Fred & Ginger musical. The sets and costumes are all Old Hollywood glamour. And, in the same way that Tropic Thunder is a riff on war movies and Young Frankenstein is a riff on classic monster movies, The Artist is a riff on silent movies that actually makes genuine and serious use of the conventions of those movies, while giving the current film its own unique twist.

George lives in a world that is dying and making way for a new world, and with that comes a certain anxiety. Nowhere is that fear more vividly or brilliantly expressed than in an exceedingly clever dream sequence that I don't dare spoil here, mostly because I can't possibly convey it properly, which is one of only a couple of instances where the film breaks its own sound rule. It's genius. One of my favorite scenes in a movie this year.

Berenice Bejo is very charming as the up-and-coming actress Peppy, and the character has some unexpected layers that make her both endearing and almost a villain at times. The real star of the show here, though, is Jean Dujardin, who plays George. There's something very Chaplin-esque about how he plays this character. There's a moment in the film where he's at the breakfast table and I almost expected him to break into Dance of the Dinner Rolls. There's such a profound sadness to his character, too - again, like Chaplin's tramp character - that's heartbreaking to watch, even while you're laughing.

Okay, I lied. The REAL star of the show is Uggy the dog, George's canine sidekick. This dog is capable of skills and thought processes that aren't supposed to be in an animal's repertoire. I haven't seen Tintin yet, but I hear Snowy is a similar kind of character. Uggy does a trick where he sits up on his hind legs, George pretends to shoot him with an imaginary pistol, and he keels over like he's really been shot. And there's a scene with him and a policeman that you will not believe.

Stanley Kubrick once said that "silent films got a lot more right than talkies." The culture of filmmaking may have moved on, but there's still a lot to learn from those early days (or maybe we just need to be reminded once in a while). It's been said that you can tell if you're watching a great movie if you can turn the sound off and still be able to tell what's happening, and The Artist is a twenty-first century testament to that. If you've never been interested in silent movies before, I would highly recommend this film (and Hugo, for that matter) as an entry point.

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