I like to have some sort of sway when writing these reviews. If I really like a movie, I’m going to try to convince you, the readers, to check it out for yourselves. If I hate something, I’m going to try to convince you to stay far, far away. But I have a disappointing feeling that my best efforts won’t be enough for some people on this one.
Why? The Artist – a near-masterpiece and one of the year’s very best films – is a silent film. There’s no escaping this fact. It’s also shot in black and white and (though set in the United States) features an essentially unknown French director, lead actor and lead actress. There are no explosions. There is no evil, cackling villain. There is no music that’s been created in the last 50 years. No one develops any superpowers. And there is no over-infestation of CGI.
Some of you have probably tuned out already. For those people, I say, oh well – go watch Red Tails or The Devil Inside and enjoy the same old re-hashed crap that you’ve seen a million times before. For people who care about the movies, who care about a good story, who want to laugh and don’t mind the possibility of crying, who want to see what’s a near-lock for the Oscars’ Best Picture – read on.
The Artist begins in 1927, the age of silent films. Oddly enough, 1927 is the year when Wings won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture. Wings, of course, is the first and only silent film to win Best Picture (though, check back in a couple of weeks for an updated result).
Our story opens with our hero, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a mega-star in the days when to be a star likely meant a heck of a lot more than it does now. George and his pet dog, Uggie, captivate the audience’s attention after a screening of his latest film, A Russian Affair. (In a later scene, George is seen filming A German Affair. One can only begin to imagine the potential greatness of these films. I’m holding out for A Bosnia-Herzegovinan Affair in The Artist: Part Deux.) After the film, Valentin is swarmed by legions of loving female fans outside the theatre, where he has an unusually close encounter with Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an aspiring actress. Peppy drops her purse next to George, sneaks under the security line to retrieve it, and suddenly finds herself on the cover of Variety after planting a friendly kiss on the actor’s cheek. That minor celebrity helps her get a bit part in one of Valentin’s next films, and Peppy begins her own rise to stardom.
But all is not well in George’s life come 1929, with the superstar facing two personal challenges – an unhappy marriage with his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and the advent of “talkies,” movies with – gasp! – sound. Studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman, perfectly cast) decides that his studio will no longer be making silent films, to the disgust of an unwilling-to-change Valentin. But after Peppy jumps to the front of the line for talkies, things start to take a turn for the worse in George’s world…
I’ll say no more specifics about the plot, but I’m shocked by how dark The Artist gets. This, despite what the Golden Globes would have you believe, is no comedy. It’s filled with a bunch of funny moments, accomplished with title cards in lieu of dialogue or simple non-verbal expressions. But at least half of the movie is spent in a difficult time for George. (To give you a hint – much of the film takes place in 1929. You don’t need to be a history major to connect some dots there.) It’s an emotionally affecting movie, and it’s a credit to the brilliant screenplay and performances that you feel as strongly as you do without words.
A word about those performance – Dujardin, for my money, is 100% Oscar-worthy, even in a silent film. He lights up the screen with a charming smile and an infectious-looking laugh, but also aces his dramatic scenes. And Berenice Bejo – the wife of director Michel Hazanavicius – is an absolute revelation. She’s as glowing of a presence as Dujardin, if not more so, and does just as much to carry the film. The rest of the cast is American, with the aforementioned Goodman stealing scenes with his bombastic expressions as a studio boss, and the ever-reliable James Cromwell mixing melancholy and loyalty as George’s valet.
And the score – oh, my. In a silent film like The Artist, the music matters more than ever, and Ludovic Bource knocks the material out of the park. Every dramatic and comedic beat is hit here in a soundtrack that barely takes a rest. It’d be highway robbery if Bource doesn’t win the Oscar for his marvel of music.
I can’t finish this review without a mention of the scene-stealer of the movie: Uggie the dog. This Jack Russell terrier, who plays George’s pet both on screen and off, is used as both a source of comedy and a pivotal story-advancer. He deserves some kind of a special Oscar for animals. (Apparently, there is such a thing as a “Pawscar,” which I have no doubt Uggie will win in convincing fashion.) He’s a delightful part of the story, and he fits right in with the overall story.
Less is more. This seems to be the case of 2011’s best films. Consider my three favorite performances of the past year (to date): Dujardin, wordless in The Artist, Ryan Gosling, almost devoid of dialogue in the film noir-ish Drive, and Brad Pitt, part of the whispered, quiet The Tree Of Life. What a refreshing contrast to the loud, louder, loudest atmosphere that seems to permeate the movie marketplace these days. Let your brain focus in on some real art for once. Do yourself a favor and catch The Artist. As they might see across the pond, “c’est très magnifique.”