REVIEW: The Artist's Greatness Speaks Louder Than Words
We rarely think of as great movies as breezy ones: Breeziness is supposedly only for disposable entertainment, though achieving filmmaking greatness in the way we normally think of it -- with impressive sets, heavy-duty acting and ultra-polished cinematography -- is probably easier than brushing a movie with just the right amount of gold dust. Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist is a gold dust movie, a picture whose very boldness lies in its perceived lightness. This is a silent movie in black-and-white, and if it were only that, it would be a pleasant novelty. But The Artist isn't a nostalgia trip, nor is it a scolding admonishment to honor the past. Instead, it's a picture that romances its audience into watching in a new way -- by, paradoxically, asking us to watch in an old way. The Artist is perhaps the most modern movie imaginable right now.
The picture opens in 1927, just as silent-film star George Valentin -- played by Jean Dujardin, a genuine movie star in France, though his allure is intercontinental -- is riding high. As the movie opens, he's watching himself in his latest picture from behind the movie screen; his character is a suave masked bandit in an evening suit, accompanied by an efficient Jack Russell who's also his partner in crime in real life. (He's played by a fetching actor dog named Uggie.) At home, George's life is less glamorous and more troubled. His wife, played by a platinum-haired Penelope Ann Miller, is bored and unhappy and lets him know it, particularly when she sees a newspaper photograph in which he's chastely kissing a comely young woman who wandered into the spotlight at his movie's premiere. The woman in the newspaper snapshot is an aspiring starlet herself, and she uses her temporary fame -- as well as her killer gams -- to get a walk-on part in the movie George is filming. This salty-sweet ingenue wants the world to know who she is: "The name's Peppy -- Peppy Miller!" she announces to everyone and no one in particular. (She's played by Argentina-born French actress Bèrènice Bejo, an expressive beauty with bobbed hair and incandescent eyes.)
Even before George knows Peppy's name, sparks fly between them on the set: We see it in a marvelous sequence constructed of numerous discarded takes, each one messed up by George's flummoxed response to this pretty young extra. But George, a married man, resists. (This is a Hollywood movie we're talking about, not the actual Hollywood.) And so Peppy reluctantly leaves him behind, but not before he gives her a priceless tip about how to make it in the business. Two years later, with the advent of talkies, George will end up broke and forgotten -- though not completely forgotten: Peppy, whose star ascended just as George's sank, remembers the break he gave her when she was just a pretty face and a great set of stems hoping to break into motion pictures.
The Artist -- which Hazanavicius also wrote -- harbors shades of Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born, but in the end it's its own distinctive creature. It's also an extraordinarily disciplined picture:
Shot by Guillame Schiffman, it throws off a satiny moonlight glow -- this is one of the most gorgeous-looking movies I've seen all year. Ludovic Bource's jaunty, champagne-bubble score is period-perfect. And Hazanavicius -- best known for the French-made OSS spoof movies -- keeps a sure grip on the picture's tone. The Artist dips into areas of darkness you don't expect, though Hazanavicius has a light touch as he guides us through the story's subtle gradations. He also dots the movie with clever touches that are never overworked or arch: George, after hearing that sound pictures are the wave of the future and laughing the news off heartily, lifts a glass from his dressing table and lets it down with a surprise thud -- the first, though not the last, sound heard in the picture.
It's not giving too much away to tell you that The Artist ends with a dance sequence, and at that point I felt as if Hazanavicius had responded to the furtive prayers I've been offering to the movie gods for years: He renders that dance in long, glorious takes. No crazy cutting to make the steps look more exciting; no close-ups of the feet to show us how fast they're moving. I had pretty much given up hope that filmmakers knew how to do that sort of thing anymore.
Hazanavicius and his actors (which also include John Goodman as a growly-bear studio boss and Missi Pyle as a spoiled, brassy megastar) seem to be in tune with a lot of things that other filmmakers and performers have forgotten -- or perhaps have been forced to forget, given what sells in Hollywood movies these days. (The Artist, incidentally, was itself shot in Hollywood.) Smart, quiet movies -- let alone smart, silent ones -- are hardly the order of the day. Many young people I know laugh at silent movies and silent acting, viewing them as something ancient and foreign, written in a code they can't possibly understand. As the writer Eileen Whitfield observed in her wonderful biography of Mary Pickford, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, modern audiences often view silent movies as if they're trying to be talkies and failing, whereas they're really much closer to dance, a symbolic re-enactment.
In that sense, silents are stories told in purely visual terms -- there are no handy voice-overs to accentuate what we're seeing on-screen, no hefty chunks of expository dialogue. They may look strange and overdone to audiences who aren't used to them, but they're not extreme at all -- they're actually extremely economical. In Bejo and Dujardin, Hazanavicius has found actors who understand that intuitively. Bejo is radiant, but there's also something solemn and grounded about her. And while Dujardin is almost criminally good-looking, as well as being a superb physical actor -- he's a little Douglas Fairbanks, a little Gene Kelly -- he understands that his role demands as much gravity as anti-gravity. The Artist is deeply enjoyable, brioche-light in all the right ways, but it's also focused and intense -- even its joyousness is intense. It begins as a novelty and ends as so much more: In The Artist, the present greets the past like a long-lost friend. This is a movie in which the pleasure of watching is its own glorious sound.
Editor's note: Portions of this review appeared earlier in Stephanie Zacharek's Cannes Film Festival coverage.
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