Sunday, January 15, 2012

Film Review: The Artist

Playing as homage to a lost period in the film industry, this Star is Born-esque look at the onset of the sound era, done in pin-sharp black and white and an aspect ratio that hearkens back to the smaller screened world of pre-Cinemascope Hollywood, and made as, for all intents and purposes, an actual silent film, The Artist, directed by the charmingly quaint French-born auteur Michel Hazanavicius (now there is an ironic mouthful), and starring French Douglas Fairbanks look-a-like Jean Dujardin in its titular central role, is a quite stunning film to look at - which I suppose is the best thing going for a silent movie.

Granted, the story may leave a bit to be desired - it has been done to death (then again, it is an homage after all) - but when taken as purely visual (though the score, a slew of sound effects and a handful of spoken dialogue give it an audible nuance as well) and as a sort of love story to a time long lost, the film can be a thoroughly enjoyable moviegoing experience - and damn can Hazanavicius, along with cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, paint a pretty picture in the shadows and lights of black and white. 

Full of stunning shots (many influenced by the same German Expressionists that gave Welles and other Hollywood auteurs their legendary looks) and beautifully stylized set pieces, The Artist need not rely on such trivialities as script and story, for in the end, it is the panache that counts.  Well, that and the ability to transit from the silent era to the sound era as Dujardin's dashing swashbuckler George Valentin must do in the film.  The mostly unknown French actor (his success here - an Oscar nod is imminent - may finally get the actor's Little White Lies its long overdue US release) gives a bravura performance as this Douglas Fairbanks inspired (a bit of Rudolph Valentino may be in there too) work of silent era machismo, and it is this performance that acts as the proverbial heart and soul of the film.

But Dujardin is not alone here.   Bérénice Bejo, an even lesser known Argentinian actress (and not so coincidentally, the director's wife), plays starlet Peppy Miller (with a career trajectory that most resembles a precode Joan Crawford), the Esther Blodgett to Dujardin's Norman Maine (sans the abusive nature of the latter).  We also get a surprisingly svelte John Goodman (at least svelte by John Goodman standards) as the big boss of the studio, James Cromwell as Valentin's more than devoted man servant, and of course, Uggie as Jack the Dog, faithful companion to the big star and the has been Valentin both.  Incidentally, while Dujardin was taking home the Best Actor award at Cannes, Uggie was awarded the coveted Palm Dog (and I am not making this up).

So even if the story is not the thing legends are made of (ironic considering the legendary status of such a  so often told story), the look and feel of the film, along with the near constant homage to cinematic history - everyone from Hitchcock to Lang to Lubitsch and Murnau, to Singin' in the Rain (even Mary Pickford's house stands in for Peppy's) - more than makes up for any perceived (and they may be just that) shortcomings.  Stylish and giddily melodramatic (the silent era melodrama was Hazanavicius' biggest single influence), The Artist may only be a replicate of the edge of the silent era, (sadly we cannot bring back the past - they certainly do not make them like they used to) but what a hell of a wallop it packs into its loving homagist punch.


Pete said...

Great review, great film! Deserved the success at the Golden Globes!

Eleni Xanthopoulou said... by
Georgia Xanthopoulou,
The Highlights: ‘The Artist’

This was the year of my return to the festival which turned me into a film junkie a long long time ago. You can say I fell off the wagon again this year… I was first introduced to the festival in 2002 and have been hooked since. ‘Opening Nights’ screens a plethora and varying types of films, from the biggest premieres of the year, to retrospectives of great directors and film movements, to films one will probably never get the chance to see again on the big screen. All in all, a film buff’s oasis in the midst of the blues every September gives you. So, you must imagine my disappointment when, for the last four years, the ‘antidote’ to September’s blues was not running from film theater to film theater but studying abroad. Being a graduate and feeling quite as lost as Ben Braddock, this year I, at least, went back to watching 25 films in two weeks and loving the process as always.

I have to say the highlights of the festival are completely subjective, since I am always careful to choose the films I am most likely to enjoy. This festival, to me, is never about being educated, even though I often am in the process of it. However, every time I choose what is safest to watch-at least according to my personal taste. And it’s gotten me so far.

‘The Artist’ would have to be the film of this festival to me (yes, the revelation at the Cannes’ festival as well, but who ever gets to watch that one?). A black and white silent movie isn’t exactly what companies produce in 2011. As retro, exotic, risqué or boring an idea it may sound to some, the film was extremely refreshing, as it was up to the actors’ facial expressions and the music to do all the work. Usually, I tend to enjoy the more ‘cerebral’ type of comedy, one based on witty dialogue and word plays. This was definitely absent here, as good timing in delivering lines is replaced by the more emotive dimension of acting and music. And the impact is great. The film starts off as a silent revisiting of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (did anybody else thought the leading man — Palme D’Or winner btw, looked a lot like Gene Kelly?) as it tells the story of a silent film star finding it hard to transition successfully to a career in the talkies. And, of course, there is the girl who is talented, spunky and cute whom the protagonist helps with her career. However, the film soon adopts a more dramatic tone, as one sees the heart ache involved in realizing you are not compatible with current situations, getting to reminiscing more and more the old times when things were easier and he was famous and, slowly, loses his mind.

It is obvious that the film serves the same purpose of reminding us a time when things were simpler as well. It is definitely a nostalgic approach to cinema but, somehow, it works, especially at a time when Europe seem to re-evaluate, or wishes it has valued more, the past years. And, by the end, when you realize that if this was a talkie, it would have never worked, or been made in the first place, since the actors wouldn’t have been believable as Hollywood film stars with their French accents. So, it might not be nostalgia for a simpler time, just a call for filmmaking whose creativity is not bound by language barriers-and all the other restrictions that come with it.

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