Today I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer, my good friend WordMaster, who’s treating us to a review of the 21st century silent film The Artist with minimal spoilers. If you haven't seen it yet and are thinking of hitting the theaters, I highly recommend it. Or you could go watch Tom Cruise try and pass off sorcery as science in the latest Mission Impossible installment. Being classy is such an uphill struggle for me. But honestly The Artist is a great movie, and well, I'll let WM's review do the talking.
Like so many movies released in 2011, from Hugo and Midnight in Paris to Like Crazy and even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Artist is about someone who clings to the past, who insists on lingering in some idealized Golden Age even though the rest of the world has moved on. When the movie’s protagonist, the once-celebrated silent film star George Valentin first encounters the burgeoning phenomenon later known as “talkies”, he laughs in scornful defiance, believing with every fiber of his being that this is just a transient fad, nothing more; even when his studio ceases production on all silent films, essentially putting him out of a job, he refuses to accept the fact that he has become passé, that the audience that used to adore him has lost all interest, and starts to produce and direct his own movies. This fall-from-power storyline, made popular by such ancient Greek dramas as Oedipus Rex and Agamemnon, is hardly original, yet Michel Hazanavicious’s The Artist lends it a new poignancy, for in our modern-day world of constant motion, Valentin’s fate seems all too real.
From the second it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May to apparently resounding applause, The Artist burst onto the scene as a prime Oscar contender. Critics lauded Hazanavicious for his clever ode to the era of silent film, and audiences fell in love with the charming characters (especially the beloved dog Uggie) and winning, feel-good story, which never loses its endearing vivacity, even when it strays down a surprisingly dark road. In short, the movie is almost impossible to dislike. From the moment the opening credits flicker onscreen in delightful, old-fashioned black-and-white (a touch sure to induce nostalgia in anyone who has seen a movie made before the advent of Technicolor), it sweeps the audience back to a time when sincerity was admired, and the public still swooned unashamedly over the pure ingenuity of “moving pictures”. The whole thing would feel gimmicky if it didn’t feel so real, so heartfelt. For the first ten minutes or so, the mere novelty of it all is its own kind of magic, but then, it wears off, and you’re no longer watching a 21st century silent, black-and-white film – you’re watching a film filled with boundless energy and passion and emotion, one that’s enchanting not because of its old-fashioned visual aesthetic but because it genuinely wants to tell a story, which sadly seems to be quite rare these days, when many filmmakers are content to clobber together a random series of set pieces and call that a “plot”, and even dramas are increasingly described as “character studies” and “explorations”. Needless to say, Hazanavicious pulls it off with seemingly effortless grace. With the help of an animated cast and a vibrant, suitably dramatic score courtesy of Ludovic Bource, he weaves a tale that is simple yet beguiling and, ultimately, heartbreaking, full of humor, drama, pathos, romance and suspense, along with an extra helping of panache.
Speaking of the cast, it’s no wonder Jean Dujardin, a French actor formerly known for the OSS 117 James Bond spoofs, has become a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor, a category that will probably include such Hollywood superstars as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Blessed with a naturally expressive face and old-timey movie star looks, Dujardin is perfectly cast as Valentin, oozing charisma as he smiles and dances and intermittently raises his eyebrows, and even when Valentin plummets down a death spiral of depression and arrogant self-pity, he remains almost brutally likable; to say that it’s easy to see why he was adored by movie audiences would be a glaring understatement. He also shares some nice chemistry with Bérénice Bejo, who plays up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller with infectious vigor, and despite never saying an audible word to each other, they make an exquisite couple, simultaneously sweet and believable. The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Penelope Ann Miller (Valentin’s wife, Doris), James Cromwell (the butler, Clifton) and John Goodman (the director, Al Zimmer).
But lest anyone get the wrong impression, The Artist is neither stuffy “Oscar-bait” nor a cutesy indie; in fact, with its lighthearted, effervescent tone, it could not be more accessible or crowd-pleasing (though this will inevitably lead some critics and more hardcore film buffs to dismiss it as sentimental fluff). Also, although the marketing campaign has focused largely on the movie’s attempt to replicate/pay tribute to classic Hollywood, its story and themes could not be more timeless or universal: while I can’t say it’s the overall best movie of 2011 (my personal favorite is J.J. Abrams’s Super 8), The Artist does the best job of all the nostalgia-themed films released last year – and there were many – of depicting that intense sense of longing for a bygone era. For unlike most of the other movies, as good as some of them are, The Artist doesn’t simply portray nostalgia as a wistful fantasy but also acknowledges that it is essentially rooted in stubbornness, a refusal to accept change that may not be idealistic so much as willful and irrational. And maybe that is ultimately what makes the movie special, what elevates it above sentimental fluff. For the very existence of The Artist, a 21st century silent film, as well as this recent trend of movies that romanticize the past, is proof that nostalgia is always relevant. It’s a little sad to think that, even after all these years, we are still like George Valentin, struggling to revive silent films. Perhaps the real tragedy is not that the Golden Age is gone but that even today, we still miss it.