Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Beth Grant, Penelope Ann Miller
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
The Weinstein Company
Multiple Behind-The-Scenes Featurettes; Blooper Reel; Production Design Featurette: Q&A W/Cast & Crew; Tour of Hollywood Locations Used in Film; Four Production-oriented Featurettes
There is one film that is practically perfect for the Christmas season but, quite sadly, I fear you won't see it when you hear the two words uttered "silent film."
A silent film? In 2011? What on earth? WHY on earth?
I can hear the arguments now.
"I couldn't possibly go see a silent film."
"There's no way that could possibly be entertaining. You need sound. It's part of the experience, you know?"
Um, no. I don't know.
What I do know is that with The Artist, French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has created what may very well be 2011's most entertaining, vibrant, satisfying and memorable films. The Artist is not only a 99% silent film, but it is also wondrously filmed in black-and-white. While black-and-white isn't exactly unheard of even in 2011, the weaving together of The Artist being both a silent film in black-and-white is likely to mean it has a rough road ahead of it in attracting more than the arthouse crowd here in the United States despite the inclusion in the film of fairly well known American performers such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell.
The Artist, in a storyline not far removed from that of Singin' in the Rain, centers around the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a mega-star in the world of silent films who dismisses the advent of "talkies" as nothing more than an ill-fated fad. The debonair Valentin comes across a wannabe actress, the very golden era named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), whose dancing talent and winning personality quickly begins to win her parts in Hollywood productions including one with Valentin. Valentin is unhappily married to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), preferring to spend a good majority of his time with his faithful Jack Russell Terrier named Uggie.
There is a spark between George and Peppy, of that you can be sure. However, it's also abundantly clear that the two are clearly headed in different directions in their careers. George moves on, both out of loyalty to his wife and commitment to his career, though not before serving as a rather touching mentor for the promising Peppy. George continues to throw himself into silent films, a decision as much fueled by the fact that his long loyal studio has come to consider him a "has been." Peppy, on the other hand, can sing and dance and, well, actually speak and her talents will be in much demand as Hollywood moves from the silent era to the early days of talking cinema.
While the early scenes in The Artist are dazzling and hypnotic and inviting all at once, it is really the intersection of Peppy's rise and George's decline where The Artist truly becomes a magnificent motion picture. George's decline is beautifully created and heartbreaking in its realization, from the responses of those around him to the vision of this once wealthy man suddenly left with practically nothing while living in a ramshackle apartment. Peppy, on the other hand, sees her popularity soar.
Yet, she never forgets.
Even sitting here writing these words and reflecting upon The Artist, I feel the tears welling up in my eyes once again as I ponder the beauty of the story, the tender and honest moments between George and Peppy that are vividly brought to life despite the absence of the spoken word.
While The Artist doesn't achieve the greatness of a film such as Chaplin's City Lights, it achieves a contemporary greatness thanks to the boldness of vision from Michel Hanazavicius and its immensely talented cast.
Jean Dujardin, a French actor best known for his work in Hanazavicius's OSS movies, is simply extraordinary here in capturing all the larger than life qualities of a silent film actor that sadly become withered as his life spirals downward. When you consider the year's finest performances, you must remember that the majority of performers have the luxury of the spoken word to communicate the fullness of their characters. With nearly complete silence, Dujardin has painted a remarkable portrait of a man that is as emotionally resonant as it is immensely entertaining. The same is true for Berenice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, whose character manages to feel grounded and wholly present along with her Hollywood styled perkiness that perfectly fits those early years of talking films.
The supporting players are perfectly cast as well, with John Goodman excelling as the studio boss who has no trouble dropping George once his usefulness is done. James Cromwell is remarkable as George's fiercely loyal right-hand man, offering scene after scene of blind loyalty that will leave you simply awestruck. Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller also shine with every performer in the film managing to maintain a remarkably consistent tone that captures that sort of lightness of the silent film era without ever condescending to a tongue-in-cheek approach.
Guillaume Schiffman's camera work is stellar, capturing the glow that seems to fit with the era perfectly while also maintaining tremendous clarity. The Artist is unquestionably one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, its black-and-white the perfect decision for capturing both the era and mood needed to make the film work. Ludovic Bource's original score is spot-on perfect, an even more important presence than usual given that for considerably lengthy periods of the film it will be the only sound accompaniment.
Easily one of the most enjoyable movie experiences of 2011, The Artist won't likely bring in a new era of silent films but it is bold and entertaining enough that audiences who give it a chance may find themselves pleasantly surprised by how immensely satisfied they are as the closing credits roll. Funny, heartfelt and intelligent, The Artist is an exquisite joy.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic