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OSCARS REVIEW: "The Artist" Delivers Style And Substance

Aaron Schrank |
February 6, 2012 | 11:30 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

(Creative Commons)
(Creative Commons)
This year’s awards season darling “The Artist” is a cinephile’s dream—a film about film joining the likes of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” Fellini’s “8½” and Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” but it’s more than homage or empty nostalgia. Packaged as a silent, black-and-white 1920s melodrama, the film provides audiences a powerful (and sometimes challenging) filmgoing experience that works on many levels. 

“The Artist” takes on the end times of Hollywood’s silent era and the advent of the talkies, a pivotal moment in cinema history. It explores this shift through its fictional protagonist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film icon whose successful career screeches to a halt when the movie studios make the switch to sound films and his once-worshipped talents are rendered obsolete.

The mustachioed leading man has built his sizable fortune and ego churning out monochrome hits for Kinoscope Studios, wordlessly charming audiences with car chases and deep gazes into the eyes of damsels in distress. When the overconfident Valentin first hears rumors of cinema’s audible future, he laughs, telling studio heads “If that’s the future, you can have it!” 

Valentin’s reaction is not far off from that of many real-life silent era stars, some whose careers didn’t survive this monumental change in moviemaking. No one’s silence was more famous than Charlie Chaplin’s—a household name worldwide in 1920s who felt that his voice would alienate non-English speakers. In 1929, Chaplin said: “Talkies are spoiling the oldest art in the world— the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen.” While Chaplin held his ground, making celebrated silent pictures years into the era of the talkies, even he eventually succumbed to the power of sound beginning with “The Great Dictator,” which became his most commercially-successful film.

“The Artist”’s Valentin is not as lucky. As his star falls, a young actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who got her big break from Valentin rises to become the sweetheart of Hollywood’s talking pictures. We watch as the once enchanting Valentin spirals downward.

What’s most remarkable about “The Artist” is the film’s format and the way French Director Michel Hazanavicius uses it as a tool to forward the narrative. He and his cinematographer capture the flavor of classic silent films with a vintage black and white look, a squarer aspect ratio and that sped-up appearance achieved by shooting at fewer frames per second. The film relies on carefully composed filmed images and sparse intertitles to show modern audiences how narratives can unfold without dialogue.

Getting moviegoers who are accustomed to “Avatar”-color and “The Hangover”-humor to find laughs in visual gags and 1920s-style exchanges is no easy feat, but Hazanavicius succeeds. And the more they’re entertained, the more they believe in the clout of this outdated filmmaking style and in the fictional George Valentin who is fighting to keep it around. 

But just because audiences respond well to “The Artist” doesn’t mean they’ll find the same joy in Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr.”, D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” or any other silent film. What “The Artist” has that even the greatest films of the silent era do not is the knowledge that its audience is anticipating sound. Hazanavicius uses this silence to play with these anticipations. In the film’s open, Valentin is standing behind the theater screen with his Jack Russell terrier sidekick at the premiere of his latest picture. When the end titles appear and the curtain closes, he smiles nervously, waiting for the applause. Nothing. Seconds later, the film cuts to a silent shot of the audience applauding wildly. Valentin beams and “The Artist”’s trick on its real-life audience begins. 

And, to be clear, the film is mostly silent. Hazanavicius introduces sound to the screen reality several times, further teasing the audience.

Both Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo delivered performances that have earned them Oscar nominations. Before “The Artist,” Dujardin was little-known in the states, his primary claim to fame being his starring roles in Hazanavicius’s “OSS 117” spy parodies in France. Bejo, the wife of Hazanavicius, was last widely seen over a decade ago in “A Knight’s Tale.” The dazzling pair has help from the would-be silent stars of our era—famous faces like John Goodman (as a tough-talking studio executive), James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell.

 A stylized 1920s Los Angeles is another star of the film, as it takes us back to when the sign reads “Hollywoodland” and Ford Model T’s cruise the streets. Hazanavicius filmed in classic Hollywood locations, adding to its period authenticity.

“The Artist” will sweep the Oscars and there will be even more talk of a silent film renaissance and a renewed interest in old Hollywood, which is great. But the film isn’t just a surprisingly watchable silent film or a warm tribute to a bygone era. “The Artist” uses its simple script and novel format as tools to create a brilliantly self-referential narrative that leaves audiences thinking about the connective power of film, the value of recognizing those whose shoulders we stand on and the challenges of human adjustment in a dynamic world.

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