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The Artist

December 26, 2011
The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius deserves high priase, indeed, for coming up with an interesting new way to tell his story that draws so much on the ways of the past. The Artist may not be the most original story in the world, but presentation counts for a lot. What better way to set a film in the silent era of Hollywood than by making it a silent film as well — more or less.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a star in 1927 Hollywood. He’s made a more than comfortable living playing Errol Flynn-like roles in the silent era, though the allusion to Rudolph Valentino is not lost. He’s a bit full of himself, as is evident from the life-sized portrait hanging in his own hallway, and it may have something to do with the fact he’s closer to his dog, Jack, and his faithful assistant, Clifton (James Cromwell), than to his own wife (Penelope Ann Miller).

One day after a premiere, a young fan — Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) — accidentally ends up inside the police cordon, which George plays off smilingly. A peck on his cheek ends up caught on film and splashed across the front page of Variety, and the interest in this mystery girl’s identity draws her to get a part as an extra on George’s next film. He is taken with her, though he doesn’t act on it, and he gives her the grease-pencil beauty spot by which she will be known.

This is also the end of the silent era. George’s director and producer at Kinescope Studios (John Goodman) tells him talkies are the way of the future, which George dismisses as a pointless gimmick. But it’s thought that people are tired of seeing old actors mugging for the camera, and speaking will give a fresher, more natural delivery. Peppy is one of the new faces of Kinescope, and George is left out in the cold to finance his own competing film, which of course will be silent.

Hazanavicius has a clear command of the silent film eras’ stylistic trappings, like close-up action delivered directly at the camera, and the occasional scene serving almost as a standalone act to itself. A great example of the latter is Bejo’s pantomime with George’s tailcoat, which is more about her skilled performance than advancing the plot very much.

In fact, Bejo and Dujardin both are gifted mimes. Dujardin, of course, has some stylishly overbroad moments, but most of the time he’s hardly “mugging” at all. Indeed, he puts so much into his face and body that it’s hardly noticeable how few intertitle cards there are. That, too, is to Hazanavicius’ credit, for writing a film with so little language to it.

But all this would be a pretty straightforward silent melodrama if it weren’t for the scenes where Haznavicius departs intentionally from the strict definition of silent film. There are a handful of such points, and each one is its own surprising and delightful invention. Most of the film shows that Haznavicius knows how to work within a style, while these scenes show that he knows how and when to transcend it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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