We’ve been reading how unlikely it must have seemed that a French, black and white, silent film would score with audiences. Well, since it’s silent, it’s Frenchness doesn’t matter at all, and it isn’t truly a silent film at all, in that there is synchronized sound and special use of voices and sound effects where needed. Surely it will mean more to those who recognize the tips of the hat to the films A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain, and even Citizen Kane (look for a dinner table scene that is almost a perfect match from that film).
The story is wafer-thin: Jean Dujardin is George Valentin (only one letter away from the great silent film star, Valentino) a huge silent film star. At his latest premiere, he meets cute Berenice Bejo, who is an extra. They have a spark of kismet, but Dujardin is married to the sour Penelope Ann Miller. She hates him–why we don’t know, since he is never less than charming–to the point where she defaces every image of him she can find. Maybe he’s more devoted to his Jack Russell terrier, who performs with him. An R-rated version of this film might have been interesting.
Anyway, Bejo gets a job as an extra on Dujardin’s latest film, and during a dancing scene they fall in love, although it is unrequited. She slips into his dressing room and caresses his overcoat, a bit lifted from Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, but still lovingly done. The tide is about to turn, though, as studio boss John Goodman shows Dujardin the new-fangled “talkie” technology. Dujardin is adamant that people don’t want to see him speak, and so as silent films fade, so does his stardom, while Bejo becomes a big star.
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is clever and looks great. The very first title card is “I won’t talk!,” and the closing bit of dialogue, well, I won’t spoil that. The aspect ratio is the old-fashioned 1:33, and the camera speed, while not the common 16 fps of silent days, is 22 fps, off a bit from the modern 24 fps. I read an article where Hazanavicius points out that if nothing else, those two frames per second cuts eight percent of the running time. The photography, by Guillaume Schiffman, is magnificent, as is the music score by Ludovic Bource, and the costumes, by Mark Bridges (who was a college classmate of mine).
The performances by Dujardin and Bejo are also a joy. Dujardin, as a man of the past, favors the mugging style of silent films, while Bejo has the additional level of playing a woman who acts in talkies while being in a silent film, but she’s terrific. But Uggie, as the Jack Russell, steals the show, especially in a great scene worthy of Rin Tin Tin when he retrieves a bewildered policeman.
For those who thinks an old movie is early Spielberg, the charms of The Artist may well be lost, but those who remember watching the black and white classics on the midnight movie should feel a glow of nostalgia. The production design captures the glamor of the era, down to the gaudy Hollywood mansions to the movie magazines. I liked The Artist a great deal, but it just isn’t deep or substantial enough to warrant “best of the year” accolades. It’s a novelty, albeit an expertly done one.
My grade for The Artist: B+