Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Artist

The Artist is at once both comfortingly familiar and staggeringly original. Most modern filmgoers have never seen a complete silent film, though I would guess that many have at least seen clips. To some, the very idea of a silent film may seem an antique marvel. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, which makes a film like The Artist a near miracle. Several movies have covered the period in Hollywood history where silent pictures gave way to talkies (perhaps most notably Singin’ In the Rain), but none have ever told the story from the side that vanished. The Artist is a rare, delightful gem - a gift not only to cinema lovers but to lovers of great storytelling in general.

The film opens in the late 1920’s at the height of silent film star George Valentine’s (Jean Dujardin) career. He has more than one meet-cute with aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), though circumstances keep the two separated. Miller’s career quickly takes off at the same dramatic pace that Valentine’s slows down, and for the same reason: silent pictures are giving way to talkies. Valentine struggles with his identity and legacy as he fights to remain relevant in a rapidly changing business.

Most of the buzz surrounding The Artist concerns the fact it is almost entirely without spoken dialogue, relying instead on title cards. It is also presented in black and white, was filmed at the older 4:3 aspect ratio, and even uses a slightly lower frame rate to evoke the cinema of the 1920s. However, I feel compelled to make very clear that The Artist’s nostalgic presentation is not a gimmick. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius demonstrates great understanding of the silent medium, and he uses it to remarkable effect. I’m reminded of Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film, Memento, half of which unfolds in reverse chronological order; all the hype was about the style, but underneath the hype was a genuine masterpiece.

Silent films require simple, easy-to-understand stories which don’t rely too heavily on dialogue. The dialogue in The Artist is strong and purposeful, but visual storytelling takes priority. I typically prefer black and white to color because of its use of shadow and contrast, but the art direction here goes well beyond maximizing black and white. The framing is consistently intentional, almost poetic; one long shot stuck out where Valentine walks down a flight of stairs as Miller walks up. Even if all title cards were removed, I think the story would still come across.

Lead actors Dujardin and Bejo could not be better. Beyond their considerable talent, both have great faces, great smiles; the leads convey so much through body language and facial expression. Silent films require a different sort of performance, and watching The Artist, it’s not hard to see why so many actors failed to find success when talkies took over. The addition of sound moved cinema closer to the theater in terms of nuance and depth of story, but The Artist reminds us how strong visual melodrama can be. My emotional investment in the characters came about without ever hearing their voices, and that’s the result of masterful storytelling in all departments.

The director’s strong use of the silent medium builds to a finale that could only exist in silent film, cleverly depending on lack of sound for its effect. The Artist works as a nostalgia piece, but it’s much more than that; here is a masterful look at film history, the fleeting nature of fame, and above all, the inevitability of change. At one point, Valentine lights up when he thinks a fan might be approaching, but the woman just wants to pet his dog. Valentine smiles sadly and says (via title card), “If only he could talk.”

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.

The disturbing image involves a character on the brink of suicide placing a gun barrel in his mouth, and the crude gesture comes when a character raises her middle finger. That’s really it in the way of offensive content, though the bigger hurdle for some young viewers will be the overall slow pace and lack of spoken dialogue.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly agreed. I found myself completely swept into it, and both leads are staggeringly good. My only--not complaint, just "thing" is the recognizable supporting cast (Goodman, Cromwell, Pyle)--it ended up jarring me everytime I saw one of them, reminding me that I wasn't actually watching a '20s-era film. But maybe that was the point.