Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell, Ed Lauter, Beth Grant
PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture
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More than 80 years ago, the last traditional silent film was produced, and since then it has remained a novelty of film’s past that audiences have been increasingly reluctant to revisit. The Artist takes us back to one of the most challenging and vibrant periods of film history, giving us the first fully silent major mation picture since Mel Brooks took the medium down the comedy route with Silent Movie 36 years ago.
French director Michel Hazanavicius, who has successfully filmed a number of pictures in his native country including the popular OSS 117 comedy spy series. As writer/director, Hazanavicius had a strong amount of control over his product, going so far as to bring in frequent acting collaborator Jean Dujradin for the film. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a wildly popular silent movie star whose fortunes begin to crumble during the onset of the sound era as financing of silent films dried up and artists who felt more at home in the medium were forced to evolve or disappear.
Shortly before his cascading collapse in the film industry, George had “discovered” a young actress named Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius’ real life wife Bérénice Bejo), whose ascendancy surpassed his with her capability to transition into the sound period with relative ease. As he watches his own career sink into oblivion, her career takes off, which only serves to depress him further, causing him to sacrifice everything, including his marriage.
There are many similar tales in the 1920’s of noted thespians succumbing to the realities of the sound era. The passing fad took the medium into a new period against their expectations. Charlie Chaplin continued making silents into the sound era, but attempted to make the transition to sound and came up short. Emil Jannings’ heavy German accent kept him from making inroads with American audiences forcing him to return to his native Germany. Yet, there’s a reason George’s last name is an homage to silent film legend Rudolph Valentino. Valentino had a career much like that of George in the film. Wildly popular, featuring varying types of roles. Were it not for Valentino’s untimely death in 1926, the shift to “talkies” would have likely damaged his career in much the same way.
There isn’t a facet to the sound era that Hazanavicius hasn’t lovingly re-created. With technological advances what they are, the film looks more crisp than it could have during the period, but apart from that, many of the techniques available during the transition are employed here. With films like Sunrise, studios were experimenting with sound-on-film technology. In F.W. Murnau’s classic, a key scene midway through the film where our two lovers are crossing a busy street, the sounds of horns and skids can be heard. It’s the only passage of audio in the entire film, but it showcased how it could be effectively used. The Artist features a very similar scene where George has a nightmare about his life being turned upside down where various objects in his room begin to make sound, but for all his efforts and struggles, he can’t utter a single word. Late in the film, we have our last bit of full-audio sound, again highlighting how seemingly sudden the shift into sound was. Sunrise was released in the same year as the famed The Jazz Singer, the first film to popularly use recorded voices.
Composer Ludovic Bource looked in detail at the style of music that often played alongside silent films in the 1920’s and crafted a score that explores what modern advances could have done with the frequently piano-only accompaniments that would become the traditional on-screen compositions of today. Bource’s music drives much of the story, with intertitles being the only other source of plot description and revelation available. The score does some very heavy lifting within the film, which highlights how integral composers are to the success of a film. Even though modern movies rely heavily on dialogue and sound effects, the hidden majesty of orchestral composition is a s integral as any of those pieces and perhaps more so.
Central to the film’s success is the undeniable presence of star Dujardin. His performances conjures up easy images of long gone silent film stars. The plasticity of his face and its expressive quality lend a genuine charm to the character of George Valentin. Dujardin quickly endears himself to the audience making his joys and sadness palpable. Even with the predictability of the plot, Dujardin keeps things feeling fresh, even when sharing scenes with Bejo. Bejo isn’t as evocative of silent era actresses. She seems too glossy and freshfaced to carry the world weary capabilities of an actress like Janet Gaynor or Mary Pickford. They were beauties, but perhaps unconventional ones. Bejo isn’t your traditional beauty, but she seems more like the type of people portrayed by the movies than she does the people starring in them. She isn’t an untalented actress, but the lack of depth to the character isn’t compensated for in her performance, making it feel like she doesn’t even need to be there.
While the rest of the cast, John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle and Beth Grant all do equitable work, James Cromwell is the supporting actor who gives the film the most nuanced, unassuming performance. As Valentin’s devoted manservant, he remains the only character to share Valentin’s slow devolution into depression. He’s there every minute and refuses to let the simple lack of a paycheck keep him from protecting a man who may have seen him as an employee, but ultimately shared a more friendly relationship. Cromwell conveys concern, regret and sorrow more succinctly and capably than almost anyone in the cast. As expressive and excitable as Durjardin is, Cromwell is more muted, but nevertheless effective.
For all of its celebration and adherence to silent era filmmaking styles and techniques, there’s one aspect of that period that seems to have crept into the production of The Artist that isn’t as forgivable. While a handful of filmmakers during the period focused on crafting new and inventive pictures, much of the studio output of the time was more sanitized and mass market friendly. The Artist adheres far too closely to this idea, creating a predictable and generic picture. It ends up both a tribute and celebration of an era as well as an exhibit of the pitfalls and failures. The filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to break new ground. Perhaps they didn’t want to. That’s our loss, not theirs.
August 26, 2012