Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Probably one of the best periods in all of cinema was mid to late 20s just before talkies were about to be introduced. By then filmmakers had mastered the medium of silent cinema and were telling some of the most creative and fascinating stories in film history. Films like Metropolis, Sunrise, Pandora's Box, The Crowd, Napoleon, and many others showed the incredible capabilities of storytelling that directors had acquired. This was before talkies were introduced and clunky sound equipment proved too limiting. The Artist is a masterful film because it uses the advantages of that late silent era to tell a great story.
The Artist is set in 1920s Hollywood and follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who is one of the biggest movie stars of the time. He becomes smitten with a bit player named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and eventually turns her into a star. George and Peppy's careers go in opposite directions as the era of talkies is ushered in. Peppy becomes an even bigger star in the sound era, while George's refusal to do talkies dooms his career and sends his life into complete turmoil.
Of course, the most talked about aspect of The Artist is that it was shot as a silent film. There are so many ways this could have gone wrong. The main conceit could've just been used as a gimmick and played it too cutesy. But this is a straightforward and serious attempt at making a silent film. One of the most impressive things director Michael Hazanavicus does is tell the story with a sparing use of title cards, much like the great FW Murnau did in his best work. He has clearly studied the classics of the era and understands what made the best ones work.
Apart from the central conceit, the story is a pretty compelling one of a very successful man whose career takes a nosedive and eventually hits rock bottom. In many ways, the story of George Valentin reminded me of Jack Horner in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Both men protested a new technology that completely changed everything they had ever done before. Horner eventually made the transition, while Valentin is more resistant and pays the price for it. His descent takes the film into some pretty dark melodrama, but Hazanavicus manages the tonal shift beautifully by using the Peppy Miller story arc as an upbeat contrast.
The story does a good job of showing why George Valentin was a great star. The films within the film are very entertaining and Dujardin perfectly captures the spirit of the dashing, swashbuckling presence that Douglas Fairbanks brought to the screen. Bejo is a revelation as the plucky ingenue, making for a credible Mary Pickford-Clara Bow cutesy, "aw-shucks" comic style. Also memorable is James Cromwell in a deadpan role as Valentin's butler. Cromwell, so good in sound films, is such a great silent actor here that it almost feels like he came to Hollywood in the wrong era.
The Artist also contains one of my favorite film moments of the year. It comes near the end and is a wonderful use of a title card that pulls the rug out from underneath the audience, but does so in a hilarious way that completely cuts the tension. Hazanavicus edits this sequence together beautifully, intercutting moments of despair with bits of silly comedy. It's one of many treasures in this wonderful film. Hazanavicus has come up with a great premise and a great understanding of how to make it work and in turn has made one of the very best films of 2011.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 9:59 PM