Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 26: The Artist


Michel Hazanavicius directed two films which achieved some small modicum of success here in America with his OSS 117 spy spoof films. They both starred the incredibly charming French actor Jean Dujardin as the eponymous character, a distinction he has again here with Hazanavicius' latest film, the almost totally silent 2011 film The Artist. The mere novelty of it being a silent movie made in the third century in which films have been made is enough to get it the notice and attention it's been getting. Novelty is one thing, a film has to have more going for it than a gimmick, and thankfully The Artist coasts for most of its running time on the sheer personality, charm and magnetism of its leading man.

Shot in a 1.33:1 ratio used for most films of the silent era, The Artist opens in 1927 with the story of George Valentin, the biggest silent film star of the time, premiering his new film A Russian Affair. At the premiere, he has a chance encounter with a young starlet named Peppy Miller (the thoroughly beautiful and equally charming Berenice Bejo) and the two are photographed together by the press and she makes the front page of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?" It doesn't take long for everyone to find out as she is cast as an extra in Valentin's next film, A German Affair, and Valentin takes the girl under his wing and gives her the advice that she has to have something that makes her stand out from the other girls. The two have a lot of romantic chemistry, but don't act on it as Valentin is married to the stoic and dour Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).

Through a montage we see time passing, and Peppy is working her way up the ranks in Hollywood, and before we know it, it's 1929. The head of the studio that Valentin works at, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), shows George some footage of a talking picture. Valentin laughs and scoffs whereas the suits in the room all feel as though they've seen the future. When George finds out that the future of the studio is in talkies, he quits in a fury and vows to make silent pictures on his own, without studio financing. Naturally one of the new starlets for these talkies is Peppy, who begins her ascent, just as George is making his descent. A wonderfully staged encounter between the two at the studio, features him heading down the stairs just as she is heading up them. It's a nice visual aesthetic, one that is employed one or two more times in the film.

Valentin shoots his new, self-financed silent film and it is set to open on the same day as Peppy's new star attraction. The releases also coincides with the stock market crash, in which Valentin loses all of his assets, including his wife Doris. His film bombs, he loses everything, and his career is in shambles. All of this is of course juxtaposed with Peppy's new career as a major player in talking pictures, and we see that she still carries the torch for George when no one else seems to. She is spotted as one of a dozen or so people at the opening of his film; when he sells off his possessions to get some money, she ends up buying all of them through some of her servants at auction. It's all very sweet and touching, and Peppy is always seen as someone who has undying gratitude for George for giving her her big break. Since the film is just coming out, I won't spoil it any further, but the film follows these two characters and their encounters and lives through the end of 1932.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film. I think it's a delightful film that will melt even the most cynical of hearts, but I do take issue with all of the awards attention it's been garnering. I realize that most of the major award contenders this year with the exception of Hugo are very serious films, but that doesn't make The Artist a better film by comparison. I fear it's being unfairly elevated in peoples' minds because of its gimmick. It's a very good film that's being treated like a great one, and nothing will make people sour to a movie faster than that (Brokeback Mountain anyone?)

The score, costumes, art direction and cinematography are all wonderful. Dujardin and Bejo are irresistibly charming and eminently watchable. There are lots of great little cameos and nods to the silent era, and fans of Chaplin, Keaton and the like will get little kicks that others may not. The dog steals the whole film. There's a lot to love about this film, but it's hard when a producer like Harvey Weinstein gets his hands on a charming little film like this and starts trying to sell it to people as the greatest thing they've ever seen. This is not a movie which should be sold to people, it's the kind of little gem that people should discover on their own, but it will likely win tons of awards and end up becoming as derided as Slumdog Millionaire (though unfairly I think as Slumdog is rightfully derided as the shallow film it really is).

Go see The Artist and marvel at the love that it's filmmakers have for film. Whatever you do though, don't go see it because you think it's going to change your life or be the best film of the year, because it's neither of those things.

Tomorrow's film will be Barry Levinson's 1997 satire Wag The Dog with Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro.

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