Written & Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
I had first heard of the film The Artist way back in the springtime when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving pretty good buzz. What really attracted me was the fact that it is a black and white film, a style which is criminally underused in this day and age. The medium is just not used in cinematography anymore, which doesn’t always make sense when the profession of photojournalism seems to have no problem using black and white and being applauded for it. What peeves me more is the fact that some films do look and play better in black and white. For the film The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich took a recommendation from friend Orson Welles to film it in black and white. A stroke of genius. Oh, and did I also mention that the film is silent!?
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a famous silent movie star in late 1920s. The star of a major film studio, he has the world at his fingertips: a huge mansion, a personal chauffeur and even a distant wife who likes to draw strange glasses and eyes on his photo in the newspaper. After one of his successful premiers, Valentin bumps into a young, aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Soon enough she captivates both George and movie goers alike. But in 1929, with the advent of the talking picture, George finds his place in the annals of fame no longer available while Peppy quickly becomes the most successful and sought after big time star. Valentin, who was once the toast of the town, finds himself down in the boondocks, seeking the fame for which he craves so very much.
The silent is film is 100% dead in the modern era. There are films which still use images rather than words as the main communicator of the story, and I think the French animated film The Illusionist would be the greatest example of this, but that this film, a black and white silent film, should be released today and garner the massive attention which it has is no less than astounding. And performing in a silent film is very much so different than in a talking film, expression must be made with facial and bodily movements instead of with words. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo seem to have the method down to a T. They both shine in their roles, with Dujardin seemingly mastering the art of physical humor which is seldom seen in the day and age of the R-rated, potty mouth comedy.
The story was, however, only mildly captivating. At the very least the story is derivative of a number of films, which I suppose at this point, what isn’t? But it was to the point that I couldn’t not think about A Star is Born, which my mother was nice enough to point out, and similar stories, and also one of my very favorite films of all time, Singin’ in the Rain. The story is a good one, I recognize that as well as the film’s ability to tell it well, which director Michel Hazanavicius does with his camera and pacing. The cinematography is a great strength of the film and there are some genuinely brilliant ideas thrown into the film. An easy example would be how funny the films within the film were.
From the technical side, the film was a massive success, especially in its use of sound, oddly enough. That, I suppose, is one of the many advantages of producing a silent film in an era where special effects and sound have been mastered. It is easy to get lost in the style of the film however. How often is a big film silent? or in black and white? It is a great style and I freely admit that, but I couldn’t help but feel like many have responded to this nostalgic play on old time Hollywood as a means of upgrading what is a very good film into the stratosphere of greatness, marking it the current frontrunner in the race for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I am sure there are loads of people who will disagree with me on that, but the self-centered ego of Valentin, which is carried throughout the film, was not overly impressive to me, even while Dujardin was. We do need more black and white films and silent films should not be a lost art, I agree, but that simple fact does not necessarily elevate this particular film.
*** – Very Good