By Brian Hall
There was a moment during writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ film “The Artist” when I realized I had my mouth open in slack-jawed delight. I then snapped to, closed it and continued enjoying the spectacle on screen.
What’s most surprising about this fact is that the film isn’t a CGI stuffed spectacle about warring robots and wasn’t shot in “eye-popping” 3D. On the contrary, The Artist is a black and white silent film that’s coming soon to a theater near you.
There are no ironic winks at the camera to be found in this 90 minute love letter to early cinema. This is a straight-up, modern made silent film – title cards and all – that not only evokes the old Hollywood film era technically, but suitably, in its story as well.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film actor who, along with his adorable canine co-star, are renowned and beloved. One day, George has an accidental encounter with aspiring actress Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo. Valentin pushes for her to keep a role in one of his films against a gruff producer’s (John Goodman) wishes and a star is – eventually – born.
As it turns out however, silent films are on the bubble. Talkies are becoming the rage and older stars aren’t transitioning well – including George who insists no one wants to hear an actor any way. What follows is the rise of a young starlet, the crossroads of a legend, and the unique relationship that they share over time.
In a film where the story actually calls attention to the exaggerated style of silent film acting, all the actors involved here – silent film acting themselves – do exceptionally well evoking its spirit without slipping into a distracting imitation.
Dujardin effortlessly carries the film, crafting an interesting and realized character in George Valentin without uttering a word. He’s a riot playing George going into “serious actor” mode in front of the cameras and perfectly projects charm and pathos in his everyday life. Bejo is also a multi-talented wonder here with so much charisma and pluck that there’s no doubt she could have been an actual screen legend back in the day.
The technical aspects of the film are also lovingly considered. Hazanavicius and Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman make good use of the era’s signature style – dramatic shadows, soft lighting, low, canted angles, jiggly camera dollies. The film was even shot in era appropriate 1:33 ratio (which resembles a box rather than the rectangle ratio films use today.)
The story of a silent film actor’s rejection of “talkie” films is obviously the perfect subject matter for a film without sound and I can’t imagine the execution being any less perfect, and more importantly, any less enjoyable.
All aspects of the film, from the actors to the visual execution to the story and storytelling, are lovingly considered and result in a joyful celebration of movies and movie making. Aside from film lovers and those who enjoy a movie that’s “different” from time to time, “The Artist” may be a leap of faith for some. But do I still recommend it? “With pleasure.”