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The Artist

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 20, 2012 at 2:19 a.m.


George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) meet in the last days of silent pictures in Michel Hazanavicius’ love letter to old Hollywood, The Artist.

— Whatever the verdict from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, The Artist is the movie of the year. It is the one to put in a time capsule to remind future generations of our collective taste. It’s not the best movie of last year, or my favorite movie of last year, but it is the one that is likely to be remembered most fondly by the sort of moviegoers willing to put up with something so monochromatic and quiet.

And it is also a movie that some people will avoid because they think it’s something it’s not. They think The Artist is the kind of movie that film critics love, that it’s somehow difficult, or at least slow, and that its embrace of antique cinematic codes might make it impossible for it to reach people used to the overt obviousness, the shock and spectacle, of 21st-century Hollywood.

But trust me, The Artist is, more than anything else, a lot of fun.

No doubt many have described it as a kind of valentine to American silent cinema, but it’s so humane and lovely, so well-meant, that it would be boorish to receive it as anything but a gift to moviegoers everywhere. It’s entertainment.

I will admit I was worried. When I started hearing about The Artist - when it screened last year at Cannes - I formed an idea of it as something elegiac and redoubtable, as an art film of high order. Oh dear, I thought, here comes another movie I will either like or not like, that either way will bury whatever degree of enjoyment I might otherwise feel beneath a truckload of fruity filmic associations and leaden homage. I felt it might be one of those movies I could write about forever without ever uncovering any true feeling for (or against). I was afraid I’d admire it, respect it or, even worse, see it for the jury-rigged illusion all movies inevitably are.

I shouldn’t have worried. I likely wouldn’t have had I realized that director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin had collaborated on the OSS 117 movies, a couple of deliciously skewed sendups of ’60s-era spy films that veer closer to Matt Helm than Austin Powers. In these films, Dujardin displays the same kind of comic plasticity of feature that serves him well in his nearly silent portrayal of George Valentin, the titular performer at the center of The Artist.

We first meet George in action, as the lead in A Russian Affair, a silent film-within-the-film that establishes him as a matinee idol, a kind of Douglas Fairbanks/John Gilbert figure riding the crest of mainstream popularity in 1927. After the film’s premiere, George is photographed with a fan, the aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who is also the director’s wife and previously worked with her husband and Dujardin in their first OSS 117 film).

The two meet again on the set of George’s next picture; she auditions as a dancer and he intercedes on her behalf. This marks the start of Peppy’s climb in the business - an ascension elegantly charted by a series of end titles that show her increasingly impressive credits (early on, her name is misspelled as “Pepi,” a grace note that might pass as a comment on the transitory nature of anonymity).

Meanwhile, the times they are a changing, and in 1929, studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) decides to end production of silent features.This outrages George, who’s convinced that sound is just a fad. And so he stamps off to make his own movies, unpolluted by sound.

It should be noted that the melodramatic plot of The Artist is hardly the point; we can guess the ending well before the end of the first act. But what’s important is the freshness of the performances and the clever way Hazanavicius has of using the conventions of the past to fire modern triggers. Early on, there is a scene where the bit player Peppy enters the star George’s dressing room and plays a scene with his hangered overcoat that’s as tender and evocative (and sexy) as the movies can get.

Dujardin’s huge face itself seems a kind of special effect, or at least the kind of canvas a wordless actor might dream of expressing himself upon. Thomas Browne’s dictum that “the countenance proclaims the heart and inclinations” informs all acting, but in the silent era, the face was all - feelings were communicated through physiognomy.

And so it is fascinating to watch, over and over, through several takes, as George drops himself into character. We see him shift from an already heightened alertness - the acting he’s doing in The Artist - to something just short of mugging, the intensified acting of the lesser, included film.

But you needn’t notice any of this, just as you don’t really need to notice the period-correct boxlike 1:37 aspect ratio to enjoy this film. Yes, Hazanavicius has taken pains to give The Artist all the superficial signifers of silent film, including a tink-a-dink piano score, intertitles and an assortment of old-fashioned wipes and iris effects. (At one point, the movie borrows some Bernard Herrmann music that was part of the score for Vertigo, which has upset Kim Novak but didn’t bother me in the least.)

All that said, it ought to be pointed out that The Artist is not an authentically great silent film, in that it doesn’t (how could it?) possess the obliterating power of, say, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise or Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. It is a metafiction of sorts, a pastiche, an homage - and as such it defers to the past.

And it gives us a glimpse of what those silly people in black-and-white, in their funny hats and jackets, must have found so thrilling, engaging and ultimately heartening when they watched those quaint gray ghosts dancing on a screen they imagined was silver, so unrecoverably long ago.

The Artist 91 Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller Director: Michel Hazanavicius Rating: PG-13, for a disturbing image and a crude gesture Running time: 100 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/20/2012

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