Film review by Jason Day of the modern day silent movie about a silent film idol whose career is destroyed by sound cinema.
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In Hollywood, as the ‘talkies’ arrive, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his fame. On her way up is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an extra whom he helps onto the first rung of the entertainment ladder. They share a brief, but deep, romantic flirtation. Valentin scoffs at the talkies and breaks with his home studio to make his own independent silent film. Coinciding with the Wall Street crash, Valentin loses everything, but for Peppy, success begets only success. Will Peppy forget the man who helped make her a star?
Review, by Jason Day
Despite noted screenwriter William Goldman’s infamous assertion that, in Hollywood, “No one knows anything” and with boffins recently finding that Hollywood movies follow a mathematical formula of success, writer/director Hazanavicius took quite a punt bucking every trend going by producing a big budget, black and white, silent movie musical.
Somehow, despite having all the hallmarks of a major risk, his film went on to become an international smash-hit, garnering rave reviews and snaring most of the major Oscars.
But it is entirely fitting that what is essentially a French film set in America, from a director of Lithuanian origins whose leading lady is Argentinian should be made without the encumberance of words or clogged up with accents; it could so easily have gotten lost in translation.
The silent movie’s hey-day was now 90 years ago so it is all to easy to forget that before 1930, cinema had no international boundaries. After decades of technical and stylistic innovation, it had reached the pinnacle of its success as an artistic medium and was eloquent, intelligent and throbbingly expressive medium. Filmmakers didn’t even need intertitles to describe the action or include snippets of written dialogue (The Last Laugh, 1925 for instance).
Hazanavicius’ decision to make a silent movie in the modern era smacks a little of gimmickry. Technically, it lacks an authentic, aged look and seems too much like a standard black and white movie whose sound team has been given the day off. But it would have been much more difficult to track down the raw ingredients of the day to achieve this (film stock, cameras, lighting equipment. Lead-based make-up, rather wisely, is no longer available).
None the less, he pays due care and attention throughout. The Artist is a lovingly recreated, adoring homage to a bygone era of movie making when stars really did earn $20,000 a week after deductions.
The attention to detail in the costumes, sets and props is finely done and, if the photography lacks the pulsing quality that silent movies of the past had, the black and white sheen is shimmeringly rendered.
He is also an obviously talented writer/director, who can mix stunning images with clever parallels (the opening movie of Valentin’s played in a movie theatre sees him being tortured with electricity straight out of a Frankenstein movie screaming “I won’t talk!”) with brave one-offs (near to the end of the film, all sound vanishes from the film and we are left with echoing pure cinema. I was lucky to catch The Artist with a patient, mature audience and this silence was shockingly effective). Interestingly, even the title visuals for the production companies involved are silent.
Wisely, the performers steer clear of the all-out, hand flailing, eye-bulging frenzy that silent actors proper were prone to lapse in to. The cast are unanimously modern, giving the movie the zip and pip of the Jazz Era, the perky confidence of a country at ease with itself and success, a world on the brink of near-complete economic and social collapse.
Dujardin has bags of toothy charm as a Douglas Fairbanks type in a performance that, without hysteria or melodrama, progresses from boyish bounce to drunkenness, poverty and depression.
Bejo hits the bullseye perfectly with exactly the type of wide-eyed optimism you would expect of a WAMPAS Baby Star of the 1920’s, wolf-whistling, dancing the Charleston, blowing kisses at all and sundry. She’s Clara Bow born again.
The bigger names in support include Goodman as the burly head of Kinograph Studios, Miller as Valentin’s sour-faced wife (she played silent movie leading lady Edna Purviance in Chaplin) and, surprisingly, McDowell in a small role as an old movie extra.
Cast & credits
Director: Michel Hazanavicius. Le Petite Reine/La Classe Americaine/uFilm/JD Prod/France 3 Cinema/Jourer Productions et al. (PG)
Producers: Thomas Langmann, Emmanuel Montamat.
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius.
Camera: Guillame Schiffman.
Music: Ludovic Bource.
Sets: Laurence Bennett.
Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Joel Murray, Bitsie Tulloch, Ken Davitian, Malcolm McDowell, Nina Siemaszco.