dir. Michel Hazanavicius
Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell
Five out of Five Stars
The Artist takes a step back in time to a different age- filmed entirely in black and white, and is 99% silent. In a Hollywood where every explosion has to be bigger, dialogue is crammed in and substituted for real and meaningful acting and expression, this film is bigger and expresses more than most of the dreck that passes for the modern motion picture. If this film has anything holding it back, it will be the modern film audience, who won’t likely care about this beautiful and amazingly-crafted picture that speaks more in every frame than could ever be described by sound or color. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius may have created the best film of 2011 by reaching back to a simpler time, but speaks to universal truths about love, about finding one’s place in the world, and about what it truly takes to make one happy.
The film’s plot is nothing that hasn’t been explored on film before (and is reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain in particular, itself a fantastic movie). Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the top of the world when he meets a young nobody named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and she becomes the talk of Hollywood when she shows up in a snapshot with George. The talking picture is becoming all the rage, and as it rises, so too does Peppy’s career- meanwhile, Valentin fades into obscurity, a relic of a bygone era. Yet, as the years pass, their paths continue to cross, and just as he helped her get started when she was starting her career, so too must she help him find his place in the new world of talking pictures.
The best thing about the film being filmed as silent- aside from the obvious metaphor for Valentin’s career- is the way that Hazanavicius uses it to tell the story. Valentin has an elaborate dream sequence in which his voice is the only thing that doesn’t exist, and the film’s ending is nothing short of amazing. More than that, however, it forces the viewer to pay far more attention to the visual cues, to the expressions of the actors, the way the scenes are staged- everything on the screen itself becomes more important for telling the story, and it’s a shame that some modern films don’t have this attention to detail. And there isn’t a moment that one isn’t exactly aware of what is going on- lend this both to Hazanavicius and the set designers, as well as cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman. Attention to detail in making any film is of critical importance, and films without it suffer something- fortunately that is not the case here, and the effort really shows.
One cannot, however, sell short the amazing performances of Dujardin and Bejo, whose chemistry is absolutely outstanding, and who inject so much life and character into Valentin and Miller that they captivate throughout the entire film. Both actors are nominated for best acting Oscars, and while they may not walk away with statues on Oscar night, they have created two characters who love without ever saying it, who exude passion with but a touch or a glance, and whose happiness, pain, anger, despair, and hope are so effortlessly captured in their performances. Aiding them in the cast are John Goodman as Al Zimmer, the head of the studio where Valentin is contracted, and James Cromwell, as Valentin’s dutiful driver and aide. A special mention has to be made about the dog, which is absolutely charming and accompanies Valentin throughout the film, and absolutely steals the scenes he is in.
Being a silent film one has to make mention of the score as well, here composed by Ludovic Bource. For most of the film the score accompanies it absolutely perfectly and serves to enhance the beautiful images on the screen, but there are moments when it is jarringly contradictory. These moments are few and certainly intentional, though, so they don’t detract from the film. Rather they compel one to pay closer attention. This, much like the lack of dialogue and the black-and-white, are a great homage to a time when films were simply different- when the music had to carry the entire mood of the film. Not that the music of a good modern film does not absolutely carry the mood of the scene; this, much like the attention to detail already mentioned, should be present in any film, but Bource and Hazanavicius utilize the score to not only tell the story, but to build on it and take it further.
Overall, there is nothing that can be said about the film that can even do it justice. This is not a good film, this is a great film, an absolutely wonderful piece of cinema that is absolutely, in every single way, must-see. So many may be skeptical of the film’s silent, black-and-white presentation, but this amazing film puts so many films made nowadays to shame that there is no comparison. Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius has already won a DGA for the film, so the smart money is definitely on him taking home an Academy Award, and it could not be more well-deserved. But, don’t believe this reviewer: check out the amazing trailer for the film, which has so much energy and feeling in it alone that one can’t help but be drawn to the theater. It is a beautiful homage, a great story, with excellent performances, but the true effort here belongs to Hazanavicius for using every single tool available to him to tell it all just a little bit better. Five out of five stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
If you missed the link above please check out the fantastic trailer for this film. You can find this review and other reviews over at Black Entertainment USA. As always, you can follow me on Twitter or book my face. “Talking pictures, that means I’m out of a job. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony.”