Michel Hazanavicius has done the improbable with The Artist: he’s made a silent, black and white French film that goes against everything the studio system stands for in 2011. But though the director may be French, this story is purely American. Not only does it take cues from Hollywood heavyweights like Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain, it’s so beautifully crafted that it’s also able to stand alongside those juggernauts in the pantheon of greatness. It’s a timeless love letter to old Hollywood, an instant classic that perfectly captures the era and reminds the audience of the wonderful things great films are able to accomplish.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star at the peak of his career. He’s a narcissistic blowhard – he salutes a framed portrait of himself when leaving his house – but he’s always smiling, an immensely likeable guy who is simply a born entertainer. He hams it up for audiences at screenings and plays all the right cards with the press, and the fact that he stars in films alongside his adorable pet dog doesn’t hurt. But two things happen early in the film that alter the course of his life: George meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young fresh-off-the-bus type with starry eyes set on becoming a movie star, and the “talkie” is introduced to the world. As a member of the old guard, George stands firmly against the concept of adapting; Peppy, on the other hand, uses this new style of filmmaking to emerge as America’s sweetheart, leaving George in the dust in the process.
This old vs. new conflict is the driving force behind the movie, and with such broad themes, the film invites viewers to interpret our own messages from them. Is The Artist a critique of the recent 3D boom in American film? Is it a coming of age story? Is it a cautionary tale about the perils of succumbing to one’s own pride? I’d argue it’s all of the above, and far more. It’s a Rorschach test of a film, allowing multiple readings on different levels for those who seek them.
The ultimate irony of the film is that it’s a movie about the rise of the talkie presented in a “silent” format. But perhaps the most engrossing element of The Artist is the way it handles sound design. Ostensibly it’s a silent film, but in reality, it’s a case of selective sound choices made by the filmmakers. There’s a “Twilight Zone”-inspired dream sequence about thirty minutes in that provides a shocking break from the conventions established early on, using sound to unsettle the audience. Have you ever stubbed your toe and walked around for a few minutes afterward, feeling a twinge every time you make even the slightest motion, and realized you’ve taken for granted those times when you’re not injured and everything’s OK? That’s what The Artist is like, except with sound as the element we’re hypersensitive to; we notice every single noise here, from the superb, swelling score to the rarely heard but remarkably effective sound effects. Text cards are also dropped in occasionally, though the physicality of the actors means that not every line they speak has to be written out and shown to us.
The leads are both extraordinary, flawlessly embodying the look and acting style of the film’s setting. Dujardin is eerily reminiscent of Clark Gable, carrying himself with the same rascally bravado as the iconic actor. Bejo (who, I discovered at a post-screening Q&A, is married to Hazanavicius, this film’s director) is marvelous and adorable, totally believable as a rising star beloved by all. It’s a love story of the best kind, one fraught with obstacles and spanning years in the lives of two people drawn together by a common passion and an instinctual attraction. There has been some Oscar talk for the acting – Dujardin won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival this year – and any awards that come their way are totally deserved. The supporting cast is also authentic and genuine, with big names like John Goodman and James Cromwell providing veteran assistance for the headliners.
There are some metaphors here that may be considered a bit too obvious (George writes, directs, produces, and stars in his own film, and it ends with him literally sinking into quicksand; later, he surrounds himself with film and sets it on fire, trapping himself in the blaze of his own history), but subtlety is not a luxury afforded to a film as brazen as this. The movie has a timeless feel to it, but it’s important to realize how important it is that The Artist was made now, in 2011, an era in which quadrilogies are the norm and one which many consider to be the most creatively bankrupt span in the industry’s history. For me, the very existence of this film in today’s marketplace, along with its (granted, self-imposed) format constrictions, allows me justification in overlooking some of its more on-the-nose choices.
The Artist is a spellbinding yarn about show business, change, hubris, refusing to adapt, attempting to stay relevant, and falling in love. I can’t recommend it highly enough, as it’ll surely end up on my favorites of the year list. It’s emotional in all the right places, charmingly funny, and nothing short of tremendous in both drama and style. Until next time…