It took some courage on Michael Hazanavicius’ part to make his latest film “The Artist” in the style of an old fashioned silent film. You wouldn’t think there would be a huge audience for it. However, considering this film is about the rise and fall of an aging silent movie star, this is the only way Hazanavicius can do it. It gives the movie its sense of identity and without it “The Artist” would probably be another run of the mill tragedy/love story about a famous person’s decline.
The film is straightforward, easy to follow, not too long and for how sad it is it maintains an overall playful and vaudevillian tone. It shows you that a movie doesn’t need to have sound in order for it to be convincing.
Hazanavicius captures every aspect of a silent movie. The use of black and white, and dialogue cards. There’s Ludovic Bource’s silent movie-esque instrumental soundtrack that mirrors every mood and action in the film perfectly. There are also a few small touches that further the overall experience, like the slight overacting in the performances and portions of the film that are sped up.
The movie opens in 1927, silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the top of his game. He and his producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) have made a number of successful movies and he’s still going strong. After a packed screening of his latest film he and his faithful Jack Russell Terrier (played by Uggi the dog), do some more performing and posing for a crowd of onlookers and press outside the theater.
He has a beautiful wife, a loyal audience and a big house; he’s living in a dream world. However all of that changes with the birth of The Talkies. George is suddenly cast aside to make way for the younger talent. “Out with the old, in with the new.” The new being rising Hollywood starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who takes a liking to George.
All the actors in the movie look like they’re having the time of their lives. Since there was no sound silent movie actors had to work harder, mugging for the camera and making themselves more animated. With his black tuxedo and top hat, his pencil thin mustache, slicked back hair and million dollar smile you can’t take your eyes off Dujardin, his fluid movements are almost hypnotizing and partnered with Bejo’s charms the two have some of the best screen chemistry of the year and they do it without sound, which spares us the sappy cliché rom com dialogue. And as for Uggi? The scenes he and George share are some of the most memorable and touching in the movie, as it usually goes with dogs in film.
George thinks the whole idea of Talkies is silly and doesn’t think they’ll last. As he says (or rather, doesn’t) “People come to see me, they don’t need to see me speak.” He tries to make his own silent movie, but it flops at the box office. Then his wife leaves him and he loses his house and possessions but he still won’t budge. He won’t even look at a screenplay, not that he gets any. He’s old news. George is stubborn yes, but can you blame him? He doesn’t want things to change, he wants to keep living his caricature dream, making movies and posing for crowds. Who wants to face the harsh reality? None of us really like change; especially if it’s in an area we’re passionate about, whether it be movies or print journalism vs. online. But change is the future and it will go on with or without George.
It takes place in the silent movie era but “The Artist” is still a very contemporary film. Just as cinema was going through a revolution back then, cinema is going through a revolution now, with the rising popularity of 3D and even digital film. There are the big hotshot producers who are all for embracing it and moving forward just as there are those who are reluctant. There are independent filmmakers who don’t want to conform to the studio system and stick to their old ways.
Although Hazanavicius isn’t trying to preach by any means. There is still a well-paced, compelling and amusing story to keep our attention. And the picture isn’t totally against Talkies or changes either, but (in the end) about compromise. Silent movies are out but that doesn’t mean a silent movie star can’t still find his place in the new era.
The bottom line with “The Artist” is that it’s silent (except for a couple instances) and in black and white. If you can’t get behind that then you won’t enjoy the movie. Hopefully, audiences will see that Hazanavicius has crafted a rare, once in a decade movie, that both reminds us of a magical time in cinema and of where we are today. These are the kinds of risks I like to see directors take, amidst all the CGI, 3D, Spielberg sentimentality, and Michael Bay caliber explosions