Film Review – The Artist
Nostalgia has been a major theme this year in films. With Midnight in Paris, about a man who thinks culture was at its peak in the 1940s, and Hugo and its honoring of an early filmmaker, this is the year of recognizing the past. Now there is The Artist, a silent film in black and white, about the silent age of film and what the onset of talkies did to those who did their best work in silent pictures. While it is a homage to silent films, it is also a reintroduction to how silent movies can work as a medium.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the king of the silent screen and within minutes of the film starting, we already know many of his traits. He is a bit arrogant about himself and his abilities, but he is a fun-loving sort who delights in the joy his films bring the audience. He also loves to interact with the audience, bringing out his faithful dog that is in all his movies to do bits for them. So when a young girl, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), accidentally bumps into him when he is posing for the press at his movie premiere, he doesn’t get angry; he delights in the humor of it and has her pose for the cameras. Then when she shows up to work as an extra and George’s manager, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), gets upset that she stole publicity from the movie premiere, he pushes for her to stay and there are small sparks that start to fly between them.
Then the changes come to the film industry. With the introduction of sound, George scoffs at the idea that sound is necessary for film to work. While Peppy, moving up from small roles, easily fits into the new and younger faces that audiences want from talkies and her star rises, George starts to lose his prominence. These two are at the center of everything that happens after that, and they have a gift for expression. Dujardin gets the task of having the “overacting” looks of a silent star when in a movie within a movie, but outside of that he still is very expressionistic. In fact, he is actually more expressionistic when he is subdued; we feel his joy or pain without it being as blatant. You get a chance to take it in and really feel for his situation. Bejo gets less time on screen, but she sells herself just as much as Dujardin. Her face shows her emotions and feelings so vividly that you forget that there is no dialogue. There is a beautiful scene where Peppy goes to thank George for letting her stay on the set and she starts to interact with his coat rack as though it was him; through that we see her feelings, but also she sells what it is that silent films can do when sound is not involved, with just the actor and a simple prop.
The second half of the film focuses more on George as he deals with his losses. He falls into a depression, unable to get out due to his his own stubbornness to take help, but also because he is abandoned by others who think he is no longer a talent. The descent is caused by himself and events beyond his control, which gives it a great level of realism. While this is a major arc for the character, it does start to go on for longer then is necessary. Though with no people around, we are given surprisingly strong moments with George and his dog. It sounds silly, but the dog is the most loyal and constant companion he has had for the entire film, from being there when he is a star and helping him in his movies to being the one who is with him throughout his situation with the same level of devotion. It could be said that it is easy, because he is an animal, but he is so every present and is so loyal we know of his importance and his ability on the screen makes him, in many ways, the third star of the film.
Yet, throughout his sadness, there is always Peppy in the background, trying to get into George’s life and help. Having never let go of her original feelings and how he helped her, she shares in his sadness. While believable, with the intensity that developed in the first half forming their relationship, some more time spent together with them could have made the development feel a bit more natural. They work so well off each other and bring out some of the most touching and funny moments; you just want more.
The greatest feat the film accomplishes is in showing how much human expression and feeling can come from just the looks and movements of the characters. While the leads are uniformly good, being actors that are less known in the States, it was easier to imagine them in a silent movie. So the success of the film is managed even more so in the work of John Goodman and James Cromwell, who, while supporting players, show just as much dedication to the silent world as the leads giving the expressive performances. They make you believe that they could come from the silent world. These characters are so expressive that the “gimmick” of being silent is worn away quite quickly and there actually are some moments of noise that are there to express how the characters are adapting to the new world. It is actually jarring when it happens because you are expecting silence and actually getting used to the silence of the film.
If another silent movie could be made after this one, it would be difficult to make it work. What makes this work is the “newness” of the movie. The idea that someone could capture that effect again would be very hard to attain. It would be like someone trying to make another Avatar; the effects of being the first one out is what defines much of what makes the movie work, and the same concept applies here. This will be the definitive silent movie for some time to come.
Final Grade: A-