Review: The Artist
PLOT: In 1927 Hollywood, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the biggest star in town. The veteran of dozens of swashbuckling adventures that pair him with his plucky Jack Russell terrier, Valentin is the envy of every man, and the dream of every woman. But, the arrival of sound films, and the changing tastes of the public have a disastrous effect on Valentine’s life and career, and his star quickly plummets. Meanwhile, his protégé, a beautiful young comedienne, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) becomes an overnight sensation, while Valentin sinks into obscurity and poverty.
REVIEW: THE ARTIST marks the arrival, in a big way, of director Michel Hazanavicius, who previously directed the enjoyable, if lightweight Eurospy spoofs, the OSS 117 films, also starring Jean Dujardin. Those films were fun (they were big hits here in Montreal, where French films tend to perform well), but they didn’t prepare me for THE ARTIST, which immediately brings Hazanavicius (not to mention star Dujardin) to the top-tier of international filmmakers to watch.
More than anything, THE ARTIST is a film about love- and I don’t mean that in a corny way. Sure, it’s something of a love story (although the deepest love of the plot is not between Valentin and Miller, but rather Valantin and his canine best-friend, Uggy- a Jack Russell terrier that’s like the Olivier of dog actors), but the real love is the one Hazanavicus has for old Hollywood.
In the last few years, there have been a lot of post-modern, take-offs, or homages to forgotten films forms (mostly to the seventies GRINDHOUSE genre, which has been in vogue for the last five years or so). But while those films are tongue in cheek, and constantly wink at audiences reminding us “this is all a joke”, THE ARTIST completely works as a film of its own, and a profound work of art.
It’s no wonder the Weinsteins are marketing this as their big Oscar contender, and it’s easily good enough to qualify for many of the top awards. But here’s the rub: it’s silent. Yes, ladies and gents, THE ARTIST is not only about silent films, it IS a silent film. Now, this may turn off a bunch of you, but give it a chance. There’s really something about top-tier silent that cast a spell over audiences (especially if seen in a darkened theater), and THE ARTIST is truly captivating.
The plot is deeply reminiscent of A STAR IS BORN, although Valentin’s story parallel’s many of the top silent actors, particularly John Gilbert, who has the biggest matinee idol of his time, but, thanks to his light-weight voice, and total misunderstanding of the nuances of acting in sound, crashed and burned once sound films became the norm.
I’m sure my plot description makes this sound like a tragedy, and while it certainly has massive helpings of pathos, it’s actually very funny, and has a surprisingly light touch throughout- particularly when the dog, Uggy is involved (the audience I saw this with cooed with delight every time the dog was onscreen, and being a dog lover myself, I joined them). Dujardin is mostly known as a comic actor in France, and his performance is remarkably faithful to the Buster Keaton style of silent comedy, with heavy doses of Douglas Fairbanks-style daring-do, and John Gilbert-style pathos. While he only utters a single line of dialogue (at the VERY end), Dujardin has to be considered one of the big Oscar contenders, and if he doesn’t at least get a nomination, I’ll be astonished.
The rest of the cast is similarly good, with Bérénice Bejo (who, in addition to being the love interest in the first OSS 117 film, is also married to Hazanavicus), making a charming, flapper-style heroine, who’s very reminiscent, in boisterousness, of golden age starlets like Carole Lombard. The rest of the cast filled out by American, name actors, including John Goodman (with his expressive face tailor-made for silent) playing the exasperated studio boss, and James Cromwell playing Valentin’s dutiful butler. Penelope Ann Miller, of CARLITO’S WAY & THE SHADOW, has a role as Valentin’s vain wife, and amazingly, she doesn’t seem to have aged a day in the twenty years (!) since many of her big films.
As was common in Golden Age Hollywood, THE ARTIST is shot in 1:33:1, gorgeous black & white, and has a sweeping symphonic score by Ludovic Bourse, which is all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination if its own, although they cheat a bit by using Bernard Hermann’s theme from VERTIGO to score the climactic scenes.
Suffice to say, I adored THE ARTIST, and it cast a ninety minute spell over me, that’s something that’s increasingly tough to pull off, as I grow every day into a more jaded filmgoer. From the first frame, to the last, THE ARTIST had me in the palm of its hand.