Monday, January 2, 2012

A Silent Triumph

The Artist is a sweet, utterly charming movie that understands the audience's love of what movies represent. This silent film (except for two wonderful moments I will not reveal) is both a beautifully told story about an actor who sees his fortunes change during the transition from silent films to talkies as well as a look at the joy of making movies, both in terms of today's cinema as well as in years past.

Directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist tells the story of silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who as the story begins, is standing behind the curtain of his latest film at its 1927 premiere. While others, such as studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wait anxiously for the audience's reaction, Valentin is confident that the moviegoers will love his new work and sure enough, just as the film ends, there is thunderous applause. 

As The Artist is a silent film itself, Hazanavicius cleverly shows us the audience clapping their approval, but we cannot hear the sound of their appeciation. Valentin steps in front of the curtain along with his trusted canine friend, a charismatic Jack Russell terrier who always seems to be at the side of the actor, both on and off-screen. Valentin proceeds to ham it up in front of the audience, taking bows far beyond the normal time any other actor would be allowed, much to the chagrin of his leading lady, though Zimmer, who is used to this behavior, doesn't seem to mind; after all, this is his meal ticket.

As he meets his fans outside the theater, one admiring female named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) stumbles from the crowd and bumps into Valentin. She is embarrassed at first and Valentin is puzzled, but after this awkward beginning, they laugh and pose for the cameras, with Miller even stealing a kiss from him. A photo of this brief encounter runs in publications across the country with the headline, "Who's That Girl?"

I won't give away too many more plot details, but it is important to know that from that moment on, the two of them will be linked forever more. They will make a film together and eventually she will become a starlet in Hollywood, while his fame decreases. Valentin will become morose and feel sorry for himself, but Miller will always be there for him and if he will only let her help him, as she says in the film, he can meet with renewed success. 

If The Artist consisted merely of this story of how these two characters alternately discover the joy as well as the despair of sudden fame, it would be more than enough to make this film a success. The two characters are wonderful icons, Valentin, the dashing star and Miller, the irresistible young discovery. Aiding greatly in our appreciation of these two characters are the performances of these actors, especially that of Dujardin. The actor has the necessary good looks for the role of a film star, but it's his physical mannerisms that really convince us of his talent. He's light on his feet, elegantly maneuvering his way through good and bad times. Bejo is just lovely here, as she clearly has a face the camera loves (as does Hazanavicius, her real-life husband) and her facial expressions are perfect, whether she is expressing joy during an audition or surprise when being discovered during a simple dance step she performs at the studio.

But The Artist give us so much more than a heartwarming story, as it's also an unabashed tribute to silent films and even a few sound films of the past. The story of his downfall and her success has that A Star is Born theme, while the scene of Valentin watching his old films in his drab apartment by himself is straight out of Sunset Boulevard. Hazanavicius understands that the audience knows and loves those films and plays upon our admiration. He also includes a scene at the dining table of Valentin and his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), where she reads a paper as he tries to express his true feelings toward her. This is a direct tribute to a similar scene in Citizen Kane, one of the cinema's most iconic works. 

While I loved these tributes, I do have one quarrel with this approach and it's when the director includes the famous love theme from Vertigo, composed by Bernard Herrmann. While this music does transmit the emotions on the screen at this point in the film, it's debatable as to why it's included here. It's an iconic piece of music and to anyone who's ever seen Vertigo, this cue will be forever linked with that work, so when we hear this music in this situation, it takes us away from the film we're watching and instantly transports us to that famous Hitchcock work. As The Artist features a delightful original score by Ludovic Bource - a score that has the charm and bounce you'd expect from a silent film - it's really a mystery as to why the director didn't just have Bource write music for this particular sequence as well.

That aside, Hazanvicius made so many great decisions with this work and let's give him credit for making The Artist. How much of a risk was this, making a black and white silent film in 2011? Who would think such a movie could ever be successful? Hazanavicius, who also wrote the story and screenplay, has given us a movie that succeeds not because it is a piece of fluff (as some reviewers have termed the film), but because it is an enchanting, clever and highly entertaining work that reminds all of us of the pleasures of filmgoing in our youth - and of the sheer joy that can still be gained when moviemakers use their God-given talents to craft a film that delights us with its simple and heartfelt moments that celebrate life - both on and off-screen.


  1. Tom, this is a great film, and I enjoyed your review.

    I'm glad you commented about the use of the Vertigo music. As it happened, my mind raced through thoughts about how pointedly clever but unoriginal that was - but at the same time I responded very emotionally to it because, like you, I knew the allusion and all the emotion and meaning behind the allusion and this gave that moment in the film a very dramatic impact. So, for me, it didn't take me out of The Artist. It made that moment in the film one of the best of the year! Still, at the same time, it's kind of a cheesy gimmick: use someone else's meaningful music and pump up the meaning of your scene. What if every filmmaker decided to do that? But it might not always work for every filmmaker. Here, in keeping with all the other allusions to Citizen Kane and other classic films, it really worked for me.

  2. Hokahey:

    Thanks for your incisive comments. I'm pleased to hear that you think this is a great film. I've read some pretty picky reviews of this film where a few writers have said it's not totally loyal to the silent film genre. Who said it had to be? Hazanivicius has made a lovely original work.

    Interesting thoughts on the "Vertigo" music from you. I must admit that I am a devoted fan of original film music, so I may be more sensitive to this issue. I wish it wasn't there, but the music is deeply emotional and did fit the sequence.

    I'll post soon on the marvelous original scores from this year, such as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2" from Alexandre Desplat as well as "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" from Alberto Iglesias as well as a few others. 2011 marked a return to beautiful original scores for the movies!

  3. I'm with you. I don't get those criticisms about it not being true to the silent film genre. In my opinion, that makes it a better film. It makes it an innovative film for the 21st century. In this age of sequels and superhero movies and movies based on graphic novels, how refreshingly innovative is that!

  4. Thanks- glad you agree. Originality or innovation, as you put it, is the key to the success of this film.