The Artist is an exquisite homage by director/writer Michel Hazanavicius to the black-and-white silent era of film. It’s masterfully crafted and offers viewers a truly unique opportunity to transcend time and witness some of film’s most innovative and uncertain moments. The Artist was the opening selection of the 20th annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival and has garnered critical acclaim and recognition at many festivals including Cannes (where it was nominated for the Palm d’Or), London, San Sebastián and Hollywood.
The Artist tells the story George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), an established, silent film actor in the studio world of 1927 Hollywood. George’s career begins to fade with the coming of sound, a fate shared by many stars of the 1920s and early 30s like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett, to name a few. George’s descent is juxtaposed with the meteoric rise of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a beautiful, young woman discovered after a chance meeting with George outside a screening of his latest movie, A Russian Affair, that lands her on the inquisitive covers of newspapers. In search of George, Peppy wanders onto the Kinograph Studios lot and is selected as an extra against the will of studio executive Zimmer (John Goodman) and as they say, the rest is history.
Dujardin, Bejo and Goodman portray the three most prominent characters and with or without title cards, their messages are quite clear. Dujardin has a classic appeal, his facial exaggerations are spot on, much like his ability to mimick and learn dance quickly. He is clean-cut and attractive (evident by the mass of female fans outside the theaters) and helps the audience feel as if they’re watching a film from the 1920s, as does Bejo. Bejo, like Dujardin has magnificent acting ability without spoken dialogue. She is a classic beauty that rises to fame because of her youth, energy, a signature wink and smile and a make up beauty spot just above her lip (courtesy of George). Together, both Dujardin and Bejo’s exuberant personalities shine through the passing years, maintaining the viewer’s interest the entire time. Goodman plays Zimmer, the studio executive who is closest to the only physical, human antagonist. His face perfectly and clearly displays his range of emotions between happiness and anger. Zimmer’s not an unlikable character though because Goodman’s not an unlikable actor, which works in several moments because Zimmer is empathetic. Afterall, the true villain is time and the changing public demand for sound, people want to hear the actors talk, giving rise to “talkies.” The angst and desperation of George and anticipation and embrace of “talkies” by Peppy and Zimmer are captured clearly and effectively, a testament to the effect of intelligent filmmaking and the true artistry of film acting.
Director Hazanavicius made several stylized and interesting choices when filming The Artist, some of which included high angles and deep and soft focus but the true strength of the film lies within its moments, which blended acting and filmmaking. For example, in the beginning, George watches his premier from both sides of the screen – he peeks out into the audience and the camera captures hundreds of reaction shots and sees it end behind the screen, arguably an ominous sign. Dujardin is frequently shot from behind to illustrate George’s changing posture over the course of this difficult transition. Hazanavicius also makes some remarkable decisions like framing Dujardin at a mirrored, glass table and between a projector and screen, these beautiful moments allow the audience to develop a deeper relationship with George by allowing a look at his prideful reflection and shadow, an introspective of sorts. Bejo, by contrast, while also frequently shot from behind delivers the signature Peppy Miller wink and smile over her left shoulder, indicative of her embrace for the new way of filmmaking and success. Her vulnerability lies elsewhere, perhaps in an endearing scene where she is in George’s dressing room, alone. She slides her arm into one of his jacket sleeves and embraces and fantasizes with herself about his comfort and love. This moment is brilliantly representative of the allure and magic found in The Artist and is a testament to its timelessness.
For a silent film, beautiful imagery and splendid acting only bear part of the responsibility, the other part is arguably found in the film’s moving, dynamic score and its breathtaking cinematography. Composer Ludovic Bource crafted a score that established the tone of each and every moment and that represented character emotion, a feat indeed. Bource successfully generated a score worthy of critical acclaim as much as cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman lit the film that’s receiving such recognition. The Artist truly is a modern masterpiece and a definitely unforgettable, unique experience.
There’s a lot to love about having the opportunity to see a new release black and white, silent film, including George’s little Jack Russell Terrier who’s quite the actor himself! The Artist runs 100 minutes and is rated PG-13, check out the trailer below for a sneak peek at this wonderful film. [Note: the title of this review translates to “The work of “The Artist” is magnificent,” it’s French]