THE ARTIST

 

THE ARTIST

By Gary Murray

 

Starring Jean Duiardin, Berenice Bejo and John Goodman

 

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius

 

Running time 100 min

 

MPAA Rating PG-13

 

Selig Film Rating FULL PRICE

 

I have always loved the silent movie era and watched flicks by Lon Chaney and The Keystone Cops since I was a little kid.  The beginnings of film had such exuberance to them, with some of the greatest slapstick comedy and melodrama put upon the screen.  When silent went to sound, few of the original superstars made the transition.  Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy faired well but not Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.  Chaplin made some very impressive sound films that are not as universally praised as his silent ones.  Singing in the Rain is a fictional telling of this transition.  The sound era brought a new idea to the screen, singing and dancing musicals.  It is this backdrop that one of the most impressive works of the year is staged, The Artist.

The start of the film takes place in 1927, the days before sound takes over the cinema.  George Valentin (Jean Duiardin) is the biggest idol of the silver screen.  He’s an action star along the lines of Douglas Fairbanks, a swash buckling hero loved by the masses.  Leaving his latest film premiere, George bumps into a young woman (Berenice Bejo) trying to get an autograph.  The press begins taking pictures of the accidental couple and it starts a question of ‘who’s that girl?’ 

We find out that she is an extra trying to break into the business.  Taking the name Pepper Miller she lands a small part in the newest George Valentin picture.  The two have immediate sparks, even though he is married to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).

The studio executive Al Zimmer (John Goodman) brings George into the studio to show him the newest invention, the talking picture.  George just laughs at the idea of putting sound with pictures and leaves the office.  The executives know where the future lies. 

We flash forward a few years and sound is becoming the norm.  George decides to use his fortune to fund a new silent film that will buck the trend.  While he cuts check after check building his vision, the fortunes of Pepper have taken off and she is the newest starlet of the sound era.   The story of The Artist is of cross stars, one rising and the other falling.  It is also a story of love and devotion, embracing change and the future.

This is a silent film.  There is no dialogue and no subtitles.  Instead, we get slates that tell the more important lines of the piece.  The rest of the time, the actor’s mannerisms and movements convey the aspects of plot.  The film is shot in the original aspect ratio before wide screen and is in black and white.  All of these make the film exactly what it purports to be, an old-fashioned silent movie. 

 

When Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd said “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!” she was almost right.  When the vocal element is gone, the audience has to focus more on the screen.  It pulls one into the action just that much more.  A silent film draws one in the scene in a way that a sound film cannot.  One has to concentrate more with the silent films and that brings about more emotional attachment.  The beauty of a silent movie is that you actually watch the face more.

 

Jean Duiardin gives one of the best performances of 2011 as George Valentin.  There is vanity and stubbornness with the reading but a very subtle heart.  He is a good man wrapped up in his own ego and this self-imposed trap.  We see his talents on display on more than one occasion.   He is more than just a pretty face in The Artist

 

Berenice Bejo has had a few roles in different films, with her biggest success in A Knight’s Tale.  This film should vault her to the top of the A-list for actresses.  She beams this winning smile that just tears at the heart.  There is such warmth to this performance, taking what could have been a minor role and giving it a major turn. 

 

The Artist is on my Top Ten list for 2011 and is one of the best films of the year.  It is a film that the entire family can enjoy.  Sure, it is a gimmick, but it is a gimmick that works in spades.  This is film not to be missed. 

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