Sunday, January 22, 2012
The Artist ***½
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo
John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller
Malcolm McDowell, Beth Grant
The one thing that was truly magical about movies when they first became popular was their immediacy. The fact that they had no spoken dialogues - and important lines were conveyed with title cards - meant that people the world over could digest them in the same way, regardless of what language they spoke and wherever they lived.
The movies values were never universal but at least everyone had the same chance of dissecting them without the undeniable effect language has on them and films had the same opportunity to be enjoyed by global audiences regardless of where they had been made. After sound was introduced, language became both the medium's most innovative technical achievement but also its greatest separator.
Except for that one genius who speaks every language in the world, the movies have lost their universality. Out of all the arts they are the one that perhaps are more affected by translation; whether its English subtitles determining that characters in an American production are speaking the language of Cervantes, or an Italian dubbing of a Japanese samurai movie, translation alters the way in which we decipher the conveyed messages. They challenge our perception of what the world we live in is actually like and more often they not they trick us into accepting societal and anthropological conventions that aren't our own.
We assume that if they're speaking in a way addressed to us, there must be some truth to what they're saying.
The Artist may not have these concepts behind its creation but it's a time appropriate reminder about the effects of globalization. This, almost entirely, silent film directed by Michel Hazanavicius was conveyed as a love letter to Hollywood's Golden Era and as such recurs to title cards and black and white to transport us to another place and time.
The film's story has shades of City Lights, A Star is Born and Singing in the Rain and centers on the life of movie star George Valentin (Dujardin), a silent era god who finds himself out of a job when he refuses to give in to the new "talking pictures". As his own star dims, George sees Peppy Miller's (Bejo) achieve blinding brightness. She becomes an overnight sensation doing the thing he refuses to do, even if the audience can't hear her talk either.
Directed with loving grace and style by Hazanavicius, the film isn't a strict silent film, it takes its visual cues from movies that range from Citizen Kane (look at the ceilings! Dark projection rooms lit by cigarette smoke!) to Sunset Boulevard (even if Cromwell makes a less creepy driver than Erich von Stroheim) and as such it isn't a silent movie as much as it's a greatest hits of the Golden Era flick.
However the film relies too much on the silent gimmick and refuses to create deeper characters; a flaw that must've been obvious from its screenplay, and one that sadly makes it difficult for audiences to connect with the characters because they don't even become archetypes.
To condemn the movie for its shallowness however would be to deny the pleasure that is watching Dujardin light up the screen with his Douglas Fairbanks smile or to surrender to Bejo's It Girl charm. It's no use to pretend you won't be enthralled by the tricks of Uggie the dog either, but upon its sparkly finale the film begs that we go and look out for the films it so meticulously homages.
Hazanavicius has proven to be a superb director of faux nostalgia films, for a less intimidating example check out his OSS 117 (also starring Dujardin) spy films which are James Bond by way of Serge Gainsbourg, and in The Artist he proves his worth as a cinephile with a great eye for symbols, references and masterful visuals.
He also has an adorable sense of humor, with several key moments in The Artist reminding audiences that they are in a silent film. "Why do you refuse to talk?" asks George's preoccupied wife and this elicits laughter in spite of its potential for eye-rolling.
The Artist is a harmless crowdpleaser that aims for the heart often forgetting about the brain. Its entire essence is conveyed in its very first scenes where we see George Valentin anxiously waiting behind the screen to see how the audience reacts to his latest picture. We see the title card announcing his movie had ended, this is followed by a haunting silence - what else could it be followed by - until the camera cuts to the audience who is enraptured and applauding incessantly. The movie selfconsciously invites you to love it or leave it and such sincerity should too be applauded.