The Artist
An Artistic Triumph

The transition from silent movies to talking pictures is one of the most fascinating bits of Hollywood history.  Given that, it is somewhat surprising that Hollywood hasn’t revisited it very often as a movie subject.  Of course, it has already been done masterfully in the classic Singin’ in the Rain and maybe Hollywood just thinks that it would be impossible to explore the era any better, so why try?  Enter French director Michel Hazanavicius and his new movie The Artist, a fresh, entertaining, and very unique movie about that crucial moment in movie history.  How is it unique? It’s silent… mostly.

It is 1927 Hollywood and George Valentin is the biggest silent movie star in the world.  He and his trusty canine companion are the stars of a string of successful action/adventure movies and the toast of the town.  The premiere of his latest movie was just a huge success, but when he shows up to begin work on his next movie, he is introduced to the concept of talking pictures.  He scoffs at this trivial fad that he believes is destined to fail, a belief that soon has him on the outside of Hollywood looking in.

In contrast, young ingénue Peppy Miller is about to take full advantage of the fifteen minutes of fame she stumbled upon—literally—at Valentin’s movie premiere.  Using her natural charm and apparent talent for dialogue, Peppy rises from extra to chorus girl to star.  Her rise contrasts Valentin’s fall as his life begins to spiral out of control, leading him to consider a drastic option.

John Goodman as Al Zimmer in The ArtistWhereas Singin’ in the Rain dealt with this period in Hollywood history as a movie made after the transition would have (read: a splashy musical), The Artist tackles the same subject matter as a movie made prior to the transition would have done.  It is a silent movie, made every bit in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and the like.  The characters don’t talk, they gesture.  Complicated and necessary dialogue is revealed to the audience in title cards, while the rest is left up for us to decipher ourselves by reading the characters’ lips and understanding the situation.

It is not completely silent, however.  The movie’s best scene comes shortly after Valentin is introduced to the technology of talking pictures.  Having a drink in front of his dressing mirror, Valentin is shocked by the “clink” that breaks the silence.  The audience is surprised as well, as this is the first sound effect we have heard, nearly thirty minutes into the movie.  Valentin is suddenly surrounded by sounds.  The sound of his dog’s bark, the sound of his own footsteps, and the laughing of the chorus girls outside his dressing room.  He leans into the mirror and tries to talk, but he can’t.  Everyone and everything can make noise but him.  He is a relic of a bygone era.  The Artist soon returns back to full silent film mode, but now that sound effects have been introduced, the audience is intrigued by the mystery of whether or not Valentin will find his voice.

Although the director and leads are French, The Artist was filmed in Hollywood and most of the supporting cast is made up of American actors such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller.  This is a clever decision by Hazanavicius, lending a certain level of authenticity to a movie that is specifically about Hollywood.

George Valentin is played by French actor Jean Dujardin, who has already won the Best Actor Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.  The actor must have spent days watching silent films in preparation for the role as he looks right at home in this black and white silent.  His mannerisms are perfect.  The way he mugs for the camera does not seem at all like a modern actor impersonating a silent film actor, but rather as someone who has been making silent movies his entire career.  Whereas Valentin’s persona most directly resembles the action/adventure star Douglas Fairbanks, flashes of his personality reflect silent film comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  As similar as his character may seem to any of those real personae, however, the character of George Valentin is truly an original. Dujardin is more than deserving of the accolades he has already received, and it would not be at all surprising to see him honored a few more times come this award season.

A black and white silent film is going to be a very hard sell to modern audiences, but The Artist is one of those rare, unique movies that every movie lover should see, whether it be as a novelty, a document of Hollywood history, or just as a good old-fashioned entertaining movie.

The Artist is rated PG-13 for “for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.”  The disturbing image is actually paid off by a rather humorous cinematic trick, so that lessens its harshness.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Artist.