Silence – Always Golden, Always Beautiful

The Artist (November 25, 2011)     5/5

Written & Directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Warner Bros. France)

Who would have thought that two of the year’s most warmhearted films, The Artist and Hugo, would charm us through nothing other than their appreciation for the birth of cinema? Not only that, but the former, unlike Scorsese’s 3D spectacle, is actually a black-and-white, silent film in itself! How appropriate, because as we witness a silent film star, played by Jean Dujardin (who won Best Actor at Cannes), fall out of popularity because of the rise of “talking pictures,” we feel all the more moved for how effective the medium is, even as we witness it become obsolete onscreen. And although the French production takes elements from the similarly plotted, American musical, Singin’ in the Rain, it stands alone not only for its spectacular use of a dated medium, but also how that facilitates one of the funniest, saddest, and downright entertaining films of the year, propelled by the two lead performances of Dujardin and actress Berenice Bejo.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is a silent movie star in the classical sense, dominating late 1920s “Hollywoodland” with his powerful screen presence, adoring sidekick dog, and a beautiful face that fans worship across the world; well, except for Valentin’s wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). I did say fans, after all. But despite George’s ego problem, he never ceases to be adored. Things begins to change when George has a chance encounter with a pretty, young woman named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Peppy soon breaks into the acting business herself, and the two begin to make a film together. Then they fall in love. That is, until a little invention named the Vitaphone hits the market. The idea of “talkies” hits the movie industry by storm, and Valentin, in his unwillingness to conform to the changing medium he seemingly has under his belt, quickly falls out of it. His studio, headed by big boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman), instead signs Peppy, making her the next big Hollywood star.

Those who feel tempted to sleep on command when the idea of a silent film is mentioned should be dragged out to see The Artist. Silent films, in a general sense, are not boring relics like an average person would assume, but joyful moments captured for eternity. The Artist is a film that is living proof of the power of silent films to move us, amuse us, and fill our hearts with joy. When they were released, they were the equivalent of dreams. Now, they are a visualization of a simpler time, one in which the actors’ antics onscreen provided more than sufficient entertainment. And of course, they also told some fabulous stories, using innovative cinematic technique. Film has now become so bogged down in quick cuts, close-ups, messy narratives, lack of deep focus, and special effects, that The Artist comes across as a moving tribute to the best type of cinematic story – one that is simple and charming enough for us to completely envelop ourselves within it.

The Artist honors silent film with technical perfection, utilizing a standard aspect ratio, sparing use of titlecards, and superimpositions to help convey its narrative. This is not a gimmick, but a loving replication, laced with references to the great silent films. But this is not just a movie for film buffs. The Artist also contains the slapstick comedy, sweeping romance, and downright beautiful story elements that will simply make any open-minded viewer fall in love. It also uses cinematic self-reflexivity to great effect, including a quite creative dream sequence. It would be a lie to say the film isn’t slightly predictable, but it doesn’t much matter. The Artist even uses techniques of the silent era to jokingly surprise us, as well as craft unique effects as the permanent transition to sound becomes more apparent to the characters. Needless to say, they would soon discover that this wasn’t just a fad, like many consider 3D nowadays. And of course, we always have that majestic music, the score in this case composed by Ludovic Bource. Supporting performances by Goodman, as well as James Cromwell as Valentin’s butler, are also quite fantastic. But the real stars are Dujardin and Bejo, who have such chemistry that the format of a silent film only enhances their romance to a greater effect. And let’s not forget Uggie, Valentin’s loyal Jack Russell Terrier, who certainly steals the award for the year’s best performance by a canine.

Yet Mikel Hazanavicius’ film most succeeds when it puts its title to full effect; that is, examining the artistry of silent film. Less comical in its depiction of the great Hollywood transition than Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist is a fairly realistic portrayal of how some silent actors were cast out of their medium. Silent acting was simply a different style of performing; it required exaggerated facial expressions and actions to tell a story without speech. Yet so many films today require incessant dialogue, and although this was not true upon the onset of talkies, performance in film soon became an artistry dependent on nuance and pronunciation, a style that did not require more talent per say, but was simply … different. However, The Artist reminds us of the creative effort behind silence, an art that those who do not study film may find goofy at first glance. In some cases, that may be intentionally so. But it also means a helluva lot more than that.

It is often said that art is best spawned from emotional anguish. The character of George Valentin falls into depression when the film industry seems to no longer have a need for him, and it becomes an intense irony that his pain becomes the subject for such a fantastically crafted piece of art, while society no longer accepts Valentin for the “artist” he was, or the greatness of the silent era itself. Cinema is a business, and it advances based on the latest technology. Therefore, we need films like The Artist to remind us that movies have always been an artistic medium, even as we break boundaries with the latest, greatest thing. We root for Valentin to pick up the pieces and start again in a new industry, because despite the fact that so much crap is somehow distributed these days, we know that hope wouldn’t be lost for the movies. It is still an artistic medium, and despite the changes that will always take hold, there is always room for each generation’s George Valentin.

Alas, the movies change with life itself, but the message remains the same. Some make us laugh, others make us cry, some may even make us think. Ones like The Artist simply try to remind us how lucky we are. Film has become so imprinted in our society, we often forget how far the history goes, and how much it has influenced our lives over the decades. The Artist accomplishes its mission by doing something movies have done for ages – making us cheer, bringing us happiness, and perhaps, helping us leave the theater just a little more enlightened. This is a movie that not only worships the artists who inspired it, but also each one of you; those who sit spellbound in the audience. Those of you who will always buy a ticket, despite the high prices and rude theater guests. Those of you who will never give up on the movies.

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2 Comments

  1. This looks to be quite the film making masterpiece. I have yet to see it for myself, but it seems that the Artist is one of those rare magical movie viewing experiences, one we get maybe every few years. We had it in Hugo for sure, and I hope I get it in this as well.

    Good work!

    • The magic is certainly there. Silent film is something so precious, in that it’s able to evoke simple emotions we often forget movies can arouse. “The Artist” captures that perfectly. There may be better films that have come out this year, but it’s definitely something unique and memorable, not only for movie lovers. Hope you see it soon, and thanks for reading!


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