Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Artist: Artistry in every sense

The Artist (2011) • View trailer
Five stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for a fleeting vulgar gesture
By Derrick Bang

I know what you’re thinking.

Bad enough this film is black-and-white, and set in the late 1920s and early ’30s, but it has a French director and two French stars, and — worse yet — it’s silent? With only dialogue cards to convey the story? Seriously?
Having lost his career with the advent of talkies, silent film star George Valentin
(Jean Dujardin) sadly watches some of his former hits, and wonders if anything
can be salvaged from his former career. To make matters much worse, a young
woman who played a bit part in one of his previous pictures now has become
a sensation: first of the new breed of "modern" movie stars.

I can hear the clanking sound of eyes rolling across the land.

Well, get over it.

My Constant Companion, probably more dubious than most of you, would have preferred to stay home; she came along — quite reluctantly — because she’s a good sport (and because it’s part of her job description). She sat, arms crossed, as the film began: daring it to touch her in any manner.

Five minutes in, she was laughing with giddy delight. Half an hour in, she was at the edge of her seat, nervously clutching her hands together. An hour in, the tears began to flow.

Mind you, she’s not an easy sell.

Director Michel Hazanavicius, who so marvelously sent up James Bond-style spy films with his two OSS 117 comedies, has delivered a sumptuous homage to early Hollywood: a cleverly crafted, magnificently executed and superbly acted drama that deftly conveys cinema’s early years while using those very conventions to do so.

This isn’t merely a gorgeous film, although it’s that, as well; cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman’s work is luxuriously crisp, as always was the case with the best black-and-white films (which, darn it, simply looked better than many of today’s full-color cousins). The scene compositions, camera angles and staging always are flawless; Hazanavicius never has Schiffman go in for an unnecessary close-up.

Schiffman also works superbly with light and shadow, allowing various shades of gray to subtly dictate our response to a given scene.

Mostly, though, this film works because its story unfolds effortlessly — without, trust me, any force or contrivance — thanks to the consummate acting of stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. They’re simply amazing. Hazanavicius places heavy demands on both; they must convey a wealth of emotions mostly through body movement and facial expressions ... and they do so.

Every time, in every scene.

Dujardin and Bejo act the way Fred Astaire danced: with an ease, grace and instinctive “rightness” that quickly works a magical spell that we’re all too willing to fall under. This is true cinematic “sense of wonder”: We are, as viewers, transported back to whatever moment it was, when first we fell in love with movies.

Sidebar to an indisputable fact: Most movie scripts are dialogue-heavy, irritatingly so, because most directors are lazy, and most actors lack the finesse to convey story through behavior. Step back for a moment, and reflect on how much of what you do, in a given day, is done silently. Unlike characters in movies, we don’t spend every waking minute explaining our behavior to others in a room, or chatting incessantly (aside from teenagers on cell phones, of course).

Consider, too, that some of modern cinema’s most famous sequences unfolded — and continue to unfold — without dialogue, and without feeling “wrong”: the 30-minute, tension-laced heist in Rififi; Catherine Deneuve’s descent into madness, in Repulsion; waiting for the depth charges, in Das Boot; much of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner; the marvelous final scene in Big Night; the opening 20 minutes of Wall-E, and the “marriage montage” at the beginning of Up; the opening montage in There Will Be Blood.

Within the past few months, the opening sequences in both Martha Marcy May Marlene and Hugo took place without dialogue; both established striking moods.

So it comes down to this: The story — any story — is served by technique and talent. Given a director and actors with sufficient flair, the story can be told with little — even no — dialogue ... and we’ll willingly embrace this “artifice.”

Believe me: Just a few minutes into The Artist, you’ll neither notice nor care about the absence of dialogue.

In great part, this is because of Hazanavicius’ other secret weapon: composer Ludovic Bource, a longtime collaborator who delivers a magnificent score. That’s crucial. The Artist isn’t actually a silent film; it merely lacks dialogue or sound effects. But we’re transported, at all times, by Bource’s emotion-laden melodies. His themes and underscore augment every scene: capriciously, gently, tenderly.


Hazanavicius — who also wrote and co-edited this film — opens cleverly, with some scenes from silent film star George Valentin’s (Dujardin) newest action epic. It’s 1927, and Hollywood is filled with movie companies such as Kinograph, whose cigar-chomping mogul Al Zimmer (John Goodman) has made a fortune with his instantly recognizable star.

Valentin waits behind the movie screen at this premier, until the film concludes; he strides onto the stage and shamelessly, happily, mugs for the delighted audience. And fans also love the fact that Valentin never goes anywhere without his equally talented co-star, an intelligent and resourceful wire-haired fox terrier that could give Tintin’s Snowy a run for his doggie chow.

This choice of breed is deliberate, of course — nothing in Hazanavicius’ film is accidental — because numerous real-world Golden Age hits featured wire-haired fox terriers: among others, The Thin Man, Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth (all of which featured the same canine actor, Skippy).

Valentin’s faithful friend is played by a pooch named Uggie: absolutely the best dog actor since ... well, a long time. This dog deserves to have a canine Academy Award category created, just so he can win it.


While smiling for press photographers, Valentin “meets cute” with young dancer and aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bejo). She’s radiant and vivacious, as perky as her name, with an incandescent smile and a flapper’s ease of movement. She lands a quick part as an extra in his next movie; they share a brief dance together. Valentin finds that he cannot complete the scene in question, because Peppy’s presence intoxicates him.

By this point, we’ve long forgotten that these actors aren’t talking. Dujardin and Bejo handle this sequence so well — Hazanavicius directs with such finesse — that we’re as enchanted by this unfolding drama, as Valentin is by Peppy.

Alas, Valentin is married; he has an elegant wife — Penelope Ann Miller, as Doris — generally found sitting, like another piece of furniture, in his equally elegant mansion. Doris, having no affection for the movie biz, amuses herself by drawing funny faces on the photos of stars in film magazines. We wonder why Valentin married her.

Time passes; Peppy’s career begins an inevitable climb. Zimmer and Kinograph embrace the future: talkies. Valentin dismisses this technological breakthrough as a fad; “People come to see me,” he insists, “not to hear me talk.” He maintains this belief in the purity of acting right up to the second that Zimmer cancels his contract ... while signing Peppy as a shining example of the new, youthful star now demanded by the public.

One career wanes; the other waxes. We’ve seen this many times before, notably in various versions of A Star Is Born, which Hazanavicius’ film echoes slightly. But only slightly; he also evokes the atmosphere of early Hitchcock, the occasional physical antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks, and many other familiar movie touches.

Convinced that fans will embrace his usual work, Valentin self-finances a jungle adventure: directing, scripting and starring. He works the press, arranges a big premiere for Oct. 25, 1929. No doubt by design, Zimmer arranges for the increasingly popular Peppy’s newest movie to debut on the same day.

History overtakes them; Valentin soon finds himself destitute.

In a story laden with heartbreaking pathos, perhaps the saddest moment comes when Valentin — now living in a small but tidy apartment — insists that his devoted chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell), find another job. After all, Valentin hasn’t been able to pay him for a year.

“But I don’t want another job,” Clifton protests, the loyalty on his face as plain as the guilty, shamed pride on Valentin’s.

Dujardin won a well-deserved best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; his performance is sublime. He’s boyishly jovial in the early scenes, holding for impeccably timed chuckles when (for example) he first encounters Peppy, after she “crashes” his press meet-and-greet. When the mood shifts, as Valentin slowly realizes that fans are cruelly fickle by nature, Dujardin’s features radiate misery, despair, self-loathing ... really, any dialogue would be superfluous.

Bejo is just as artful, Peppy’s giddy radiance often concealing much deeper feelings. Having learned by observing Valentin’s stylish grace with the public, Peppy’s “public face” delivers all the expected star wattage — an impressive amount, actually; Bejo really is something — but, when not the center of attention, she watches Valentin warily, with growing concern.

The core narrative arc may seem predictable, but Hazanavicius holds our interest with numerous dramatic “bumps” along the way. We worry, as time passes, whether these two people can get out of their own way — shed the “roles” their careers have mandated — long enough to explore deeper feelings. This possibility becomes increasingly unlikely.

Hazanavicius also knows when to surprise us, during a few choice scenes that do employ sound effects. As with the flash of red in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, such moments are jarring ... and very, very powerful.

Bource delivers a third-act musical jolt, as well, when his original themes suddenly give way to a mournful orchestral Bernard Herrmann suite from Hitchcock’s Marnie. The effect is galvanic; even casual filmgoers who don’t know Herrmann’s name will perceive that Bource’s score has changed, and become more ominous. (And with cause.)

I could go on, but I’ve run out of adjectives. The best movies result from a perfect convergence of collaborative talent, with everybody — on both sides of the camera — working at the top of their game. The Artist is just such a film.

Pure magic.

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