Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Artist

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius.
2011. Rated PG-13, 100 minutes.
Jean Dujardin
Bérénice Bejo
James Cromwell
Missi Pyle
Penelope Ann Miller
Bitsie Tulloch

Before we get to the whos and whats of The Artist there is something you should know going in: this is a silent movie presented in black and white. I imagine legions of readers instantly closing this page, resuming their incessant clicking on the never ending quest to find something more interesting. If you’ve managed to keep your trigger finger in check, congratulations on at least temporarily overcoming the same untreated form of ADHD that is laying waste to our country, particularly the youth. Congrats again if you read and understood that last sentence in less time than it took for me to think it up. We are making progress.

Progress, though heavily mixed with nostalgia, is what The Artist is about. We’re not talking progress simply for the sake of it. We’re talking about that which is brought on by evolving technology and our insatiable hunger for what’s next.

We’re also talking about what happens to those who fail to adapt. The one stuck in his ways here is George Valentin (Dujardin). Heavily borrowing of the storyline from Singin’ in the Rain, he’s a silent movie star at the height of his powers in the late 1920s and blessed with all the trappings of success: mansion, fancy cars, adoring public, etc. Mere association with him pays dividends. Young and vibrant Peppy Miller (Bejo, incidentally the real director’s wife) gets her start in show business by accidentally bumping into him at a red carpet event, an instance caught by paparazzi. Things are going so swimmingly he scoffs at the notion of making “talkies”, movie with sound. He dismisses them as if a passing fad. When his boss Al Zimmer (Goodman) warns him that this is the future, he laughs even harder. A surprise only to him, talkies become the norm and his career nosedives. Things get so bad he’s reduced to a studio apartment he can’t really afford and spends most days inside of a bottle trying to drown his sorrows.

That surface story works well. We develop more than enough empathy for George as he goes through his trials and tribulations. If that doesn’t quite do it for you, as always, there’s the love story angle. What’s better though, is that The Artist is rich in symbolism and technique. These elements give the picture the needed depth to stay with us beyond its runtime. The symbols snowball into a collection of things we miss from the films of yesteryear and of the power movies have over most of us. The technique reinforces the symbols by creating a magic all their own.

Ironically, sound is a prominent technique used. Only the dialogue is truly silent. The score appropriately sets the tone every step of the way. Another irony is the most important and symbolic moment comes when the music stops for a few breaths. During this time, a nightmare sequence for our hero, things in the room with him actually make sounds. For instance, George hearing a glass as it is set down on the table is a shock for the both the character and the audience. It’s something we take for granted in most movies. Here, it’s downright startling.

It’s little things like knowing when to use conventional sound that make The Artist a delight. One huge thing makes it beautiful to gaze upon: the cinematography. Often, when we think of that polysyllabic word we’re picturing wide open vistas of beautifully framed nature. Here, it’s a key component in maintaining the illusion that we’re truly watching something from the era in which it is set. Additionally, everything we need to focus on is perfectly emphasized by the camera.

Alas, as much as I like it, The Artist isn’t for everyone. This isn’t something you whip out on movie night. Like I said right at the beginning: this is a silent movie presented in black and white. If you can get past the idea of not hearing people talk (or you’re already past it), you’ll be rewarded with a fun experience that has as much in common with recent flicks Hugo and Super8 as it does the film’s it emulates. Like those, it’s a love letter to the movies of our collective past.

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