Title: The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Uggie
Screened at: IFC Center, NYC, 11/29/11
Opens: November 25, 2011
Something unusual, nay extraordinary, is happening in the race for the film guild awards this year. The favorite is not the sort of picture that has won big in times past such as the highly literate British entry (“The King’s Speech”), a timely look at a war that has gripped the soul of our country (“The Hurt Locker” ), an imaginative animated feature with mythic resonance (“Lord of the Rings”), or an epic tale of one of the great shipping disasters in history (“Titanic”). In fact, who’d have predicted that the frontrunner for 2011 is a silent movie, a throwback to 1927 and earlier! “The Artist,” which copped Best Picture and Best Director from New York Film Critics Circle, arguably our nation’s most prestigious film critics’ society, has only a few spoken words at the conclusion, the rest remaining true to the conventions of the movie industry from about 1895 to 1927. Those we can barely imagine Hollywood’s inability to combine voice and visuals until 1927, remember that we did have access to radio decades earlier, allowing us to access voice only or, if we went to the local theater for an admission fee of about two bits, to images only. In much the way that radio has been pushed aside by TV and Sony Walkmans by iPods, the introduction of sound meant not only an improved experience for the weekend cinephile but tragically a career’s end for a multitude of silent stars.
But are the talkies really an improvement over silents? For one hundred minutes you may begin to doubt this as you take in Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist,” which eschews all sound but music for ninety-nine percent of its running time. Hazanavicius, whose surprisingly brief resume of film direction includes the terminally unfunny 007 spoof “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” is in his glory this time with an endlessly charming, romantically endearing, yet altogether mournful look at a fading star brought low by the introduction of talkies, a man who was well-aware of his power when at the top of his career but depressed to the point of near-suicide when he loses everything in the stock market crash and is unable to find success post-talkies.
Jean Dujardin emerges from his painfully abysmal role as spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath in “OSS 117” to take an equally preening but infinitely superior task playing George Valentin in “The Artist.” With the then-fashionable pencil-thin mustache in the style of Douglas Fairbanks, he has the movie crowd eating out of his hand, particularly when taking a dozen curtain calls on stage after the premiere of his latest attraction. When Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo—formerly Larmina El Akmar Betouche in “OSS 117”), a pretty fan, slaps a kiss on Valentin’s cheek in front of an army of paparazzi, thereby making headlines while alienating the man’s wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), she strikes gold, picked up for the cinema by Kinograph Studios chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) and winning a huge audience for her youth, her perky good looks and indelible charm. At the same time her mentor, Valentin, is shunted aside, actually taking himself out of the competition as he is deeply suspicious of the appeal of talkies. He loses all in the market crash, is thrown out of his house by his wife, and is forced to fire his long-term chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell). Only one family member seems at this point to retain a fierce loyalty to the man: his remarkable Jack Russell Terrier Uggie—who has apparently been trained to a fault to walk at heel at his human companion’s side, to play dead when appropriate, to hide his head in shame, to walk on his hind legs, and ultimately to save the man’s life.
If the Brussels/Flanders orchestra plays music far more reaching than that which actually graced the silents of the tens and twenties, and if Guillaume Schiffman’s camera in effect updates the clarity of the film as projected during that era, “The Artist” remains true enough to the old conventions to pay glorious homage to those decades, at the same time even having us in the audience question whether we’re always better off to hear sound at all. (Maybe you know what pictures I mean.) The dance number that caps the tale is a brilliantly effective culmination of the year’s best movie.
Unrated. 100 minutes. (c) Harvey Karten, 2011. Member: New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A
Overall – A