Film Review: The Artist

Review By: Gordon K. Smith

I got to see THE ARTIST during its festival run, at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in October.  All I knew about it at that point was that it was some kind of homage to classic Hollywood, was made on a low budget, was black and white and silent — yes, silent, not in a gag-ish way like Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE, but in the true way the world’s cinema was prior to 1930.  And that the Cannes crowd had gone total bonkers for it.  Okay, I thought, any movie with those kind of ambitions, I had to at least like.  When the first projected image came up, in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which classic Hollywood films were until the late ’50s, it was love at first sight.

THE ARTIST is a film of amazing accomplishments in an era of monster budget, hi-tech, 3-D widescreen spectaculars.  The most amazing may be that this is not the work of an American film school geek, but a French comedy writer/director, Michel Hazanavicius, who clearly knows and loves his subject. Maybe even more amazing – the two leads are popular French stars, comedian Jean Dujardin and leading lady Bérénice Bejo (who has two children with Hazanavicius).

Dujardin, who has an amazingly expressive face and flawless timing, plays egocentric 1927-era matinee idol George Valentin, who finds his career on a crash-dive with the coming changeover to sound, something a lot of stars with less-than-commanding voices dreaded.  That Dujardin bears a remarkable resemblance to Gene Kelly is surely no accident, as the clear inspiration for THE ARTIST is SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the 1952 musical masterpiece starring Kelly as a similar silent-era idol with a similar dilemma (both characters are patterned largely upon Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. – THE ARTIST even features a clip from Fairbanks’ 1922 MARK OF ZORRO, masquerading as a Valentin swashbuckler).

A STAR IS BORN gets referenced here, too, when Valentin meets the appropriately named ingenue Peppy Miller (Bejo).  Valentin gets Peppy’s star on the rise even as his heads south.  As Peppy becomes an early-talkies sensation, Valentin’s career derails. It’s here that Valentin echoes John Gilbert, an immensely popular silent star who did not survive the transition to sound, for a variety of reasons.

If, at this point, you’re rolling your eyes and tossing this to the high-brow artsy-fartsy nerds-only list,  be advised that, yes, THE ARTIST is film buff nirvana –  it’s also a helluva lot of fun.  The two leads are sparkling, the black and white cinematography is gorgeous, the period settings and costumes are exquisite eye candy, there are big laughs, and an awesome Jack Russell terrier sidekick. It’s not all silent, either – sound is used cleverly in specific, sometimes surrealistic plot points, and (mild spoiler alert) there is one all-sound sequence in which we do get to hear Dujardin’s voice.  The French accent is startling, but that’s the whole point – as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BLVD said, they didn’t need voices, they had faces then.  Great Yank faces populate the supporting cast also – John Goodman as a gruff studio boss, Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin’s unhappy wife (the script’s a bit too hard on her);  James Cromwell as a loyal chauffeur, and Malcolm McDowell in a disappointingly short bit as a butler (he’d have been great as a Erich von Stroheim-type director).  The wonderful wall-to-wall score by Ludovic Bource incorporates period songs such as “Pennies from Heaven” and even a snatch of Bernard Hermann’s VERTIGO score.

Want to teach your kids something about the history of movies?  Take’em to this, after they see HUGO (which competed with THE ARTIST for the big Oscars in ’12).  The PG-13 rating is only for one obscene gesture and, I assume, a suicide setup later on – your kids see/hear far worse on any prime-time network show.

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