You never know when the next great movie is going to arrive. We all see a number of movies a year that we all like and love to a certain degree, but the films which leave a lasting impression on you, stimulate the senses and make you fall in love with the art form of the motion picture all over again are exceedingly rare.
Sometimes, a simple story told exceedingly well can do it. Other times, a gripping and deeply profound documentary or insightful dramatic film can get you buzzing. But as I learned when seeing Michel Hazanavicius’ incredible The Artist, even with an absence of words, the motion picture can again be glorious, affirming, and affecting.
An homage to the end of one era and the advent of another, The Artist is a silent film, circa 2011, shot in black and white, and exhibited as a film made in the late 1920s. However, the film also incorporates enough modern flourishes to make the entire approach and execution affable and engaging. Hazanavicius is a studied and well-read fan of the silent era of motion pictures and has a flair for directing over-the-top comedies (his French spy spoof OSS 117 films for example). He has a confident hand in knowing how to make this concept, this “gimmick” as some have called it, soar magically. Front and center is a story which is familiar, tragic, and prescient of the movie industry as it exists today; where big name talents are few and the road to glory is a treacherous ride to endure.
Starring the charming and charismatic French comedic actor Jean Dujardin (also the star of those same OSS 117 films) as George Valentin, we learn that Valentin is the biggest star in Hollywood. He is a song-and-dance-man, loved by everyone, with anything he wants simply a snap of the fingers away. He is kind-hearted, handsome, dazzles and seduces audiences, and entertains effortlessly. His smile is priceless and while he is a bit of an egotistical ball of energy, he has a genuineness about him and is never far from his best friend, a Jack Russell Terrier named Uggie.The well of charm and charisma is running quite dry at home however and George’s wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) is rapidly growing weary of being Mrs. Valentin. George, however, just keeps on working and at the premiere of his latest blockbuster, “A Russian Affair”, he stumbles quite literally into the woman who will change his life forever, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).
Miller is a fan of Valentin and the movies and has desires to work in the pictures someday. A gorgeous and head-turning beauty, her accidental interruption of Valentin’s red carpet arrival makes the papers. Valentin poses for pictures with the young woman and instantly people want to know more and more about her. With George contracted to Kinograph Studios, the young actress is brought in by the head of the studio, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), who casts her as an extra in Valentin’s next film. The connection is immediate between George and Peppy and with Doris on her way out the door, George and Peppy begin to fall for one another.
Soon, Peppy is not a mere extra but she is more prominently featured in movie after movie and rather quickly she is taking supporting roles in movies with and without George Valentin. Audiences adore her and as her star rises, George’s obliviousness to the industry around him smacks him directly in the mouth. Kinograph Films are ceasing operations in silent film productions and investing their money in the “talkies.” Valentin is distraught, worried, and begins to wonder what the future holds for him. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller has been signed to take part in one of Kinograph’s first “talkies” and her name is quickly enveloping Hollywood’s billboards and marquees.
The thing that I am most excited about when it comes to talking about and sharing my thoughts on The Artist is simply how easily you become immersed with it. For today’s audiences, the realization of “Wait, there really isn’t any talking in this…like at all?” will be a hurdle to overcome, but a small one I hope. Once the film opens with Dujardin’s Valentin tap dancing and soaking in the adulation of a feverish throng of his biggest fans, the film becomes an all-encompassing experience. Hazanavicius, who also wrote the screenplay, adroitly surprises with things you certainly do not expect when watching a silent film, but unlike most novelties, gimmicks, or cleverly faddish ideas, The Artist is genuine through and through.
Jean Dujardin is perfection as George Valentin. No other actor on the planet could have pulled off this performance or been as believable in the role. Dujardin is, for only another few minutes or so, largely unknown in America. If you ever have the time to seek out his OSS 117 films made with Hazanavicius, the timing, the talent, and the comedic sensibilities Dujardin brings to this role are not at all surprising. What is surprising is how emotional a performance Dujardin brings to the screen without any dialogue, especially in the last half of the film, when the industry and fame that he embraced and believed to be genuine, turns against him and begins to cannibalize everything he thought to be true and pure. Dujardin’s turn as George Valentin might be my favorite performance of 2011.
Embodying early cinematic glamour and looking every bit the part is Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller. Bejo, the wife of Hazanavicius and co-star of one of Dujardin’s OSS 117 films, is a breathtaking beauty who the camera simply adores. She has a passion and playful charm all her own. Without the benefit of dialogue, she radiates emotion effortlessly and the chemistry she generates with Dujardin is memorable.
Supporting performances by John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, and a small appearance by character actor James Cromwell all serve their purpose well and while I shudder at the online “Consider Uggie” Oscar campaign which fans of the film have orchestrated, Valentin’s companion, Uggie, is quite irresistible.
I love this film. I love the scope, the idea, the intent. I love the audacity of creating something like this. I love the tribute to, and astute critique of, the early days of an artform I write about and think about multiple times a day. By sheer design, a silent film made in 2011, with constant music score and title cards, cannot take me back to a period long ago, but I can have a sense and an idea of the energy and enthusiasm that making a film in that era brought with it. Michel Hazanavicius and his cast have succeeded in that regard and I, for one, am most appreciative.
The inevitable backlash may be beginning because, as of the time of this writing, The Artist has started to rack up countless critics’ prizes and nominations from the most influential of film award organizations. As a result, it is expected to be at or near the top of the list for the most nominations with the upcoming Academy Awards nomination announcement in January 2012. Every ounce of success and accolade levied upon The Artist is deserved in my opinion.
Through the viewing of countless films released so far in 2011, both seen in theaters and at home, The Artist is the most exhilarating experience I have had watching a movie this year. I proudly give it my highest rating and recommendation.