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Entries in Artist/The [2011] (1)

Thursday
Dec292011

The Artist (2011)

Silence is Golden

2011 may be remembered as the year of the Great Nostalgia War. I'm not here to lament the endless remake assembly line or bash comic-book and action-figure movies; it seems I get that opportunity at least once a month. No, this battle involves filmmakers trying to recapture the magic of the movies they grew up on, or grew to appreciate in their creative education.

For awhile, I thought Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris would top my Year's Best list; it may still. But in Michel Hazanavicius' transcendent modern silent film, The Artist, I've found the year's most perfect expression of how the past can inform the present and shape the future. Presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (meaning the image appears as a square-like center-third of the movie screen) and popping off the screen in crisp black-and-white, the film throws the audience right back into 1927, the year our story begins.

Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the biggest names in Hollywoodland. His characters dash through one exotic spy thriller after another, rescuing damsels and getting bailed out by his ever-present, faithful terrier. At a public appearance, where a crowd of reporters and fans strain to get a look at Valentin's infectious smile, an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) drops her purse and gets pushed into the star and his limelight. They share a playful kiss for the cameras and she winds up on the front page of Variety as the mysterious new "It" girl.

This doesn't sit well with Valentin's sour-faced wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), who offers our first hint that the leading man isn't as happy-go-lucky as his adoring public--or even co-workers--assumes. Meanwhile, Peppy uses the profile boost to muscle her way into George's next film as an extra. They become fast friends and tiptoe into something more--a development that George's butler/driver, Clifton (James Cromwell), doesn't care for.

Not that either actor has time for love. One day, studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) pulls George into a screening room and offers a preview of a stunning new technology: for the first time ever, audiences will be able to hear actors speak in their roles, instead of having to read key dialogue on intrusive title cards. George laughs off the idea, insisting that no one wants to hear actors talk. His refusal to take the coming audio tide seriously sees him quickly washed up, an instant relic who's replaced by the hot, young face of the "Talkies", Peppy Miller.

From here, The Artist becomes a brilliant, moving mash-up of elements from Tim Burton's Ed Wood and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. George's fall from silver-screen titan to props-hocking alcoholic is hard to watch. His gifts as a performer and radiant enthusiasm succumb to pride, confusion, and despair. He spends a fortune on directing himself in an exotic jungle adventure, which loses out on opening day to Peppy's bursting-with-sound modern romance flick.

To give anything else away would be criminal. The Artist is a wholly immersive experience that begins with Ludovic Bource's transportive score and Guillaume Schiffman's vivacious cinematography and ends with a screenplay that manages to capture the joy and exploration of a young art form, while also building on the ninety-plus years of that art form's innovations. The best example of this is a massive spoiler, so please skip ahead one paragraph if you want to go into The Artist pure.

Shortly after George learns of the "Talkie" technology, he has a dream in which he's sitting at the mirror in his dressing room. He knocks over a cup, and for the first time in the film, we hear a "thud". George sits, stunned, and we begin to wonder if the sound was a mistake. He knocks something else over--another "thud". George runs into the street and hears cars, footsteps, and giggling chorus girls. He screams in agony, but nothing comes out of his mouth. This wonderful narrative trick wouldn't have been possible in the silent era, and it may have been too "meta" for the early sound era--but it's just right for today's deconstruction-obsessed popular culture; when inserted into such a perfect recreation of period filmmaking, it's jarring, thrilling, and downright futuristic.

Technical and narrative achievements aside, the big reason to see The Artist is for Dujardin's award-worthy performance. It's no secret that silent film actors relied heavily on gesture and facial expressions to tell the story more than the title cards, but that's not to say that Dujardin plays George ham-handedly. He eases in and out of different modes of silent performance, demonstrating the exaggerated eyebrow arches his spy character relies on in A German Affair and the just-a-notch-above-depressingly-realistic sad face George wears when he sees Peppy on a date with a strapping, young boy. Dujardin exudes good will and empathy from frame one, and uses this iron hook to drag the audience down into George's personal Hell; his performance is so winning that Hell becomes a captivating place in which to hang out.

As great as he is, The Artist wouldn't be nearly as successful without Bejo as George's best friend/potential love interest. She sells Peppy as a no-nonsense dreamer who genuinely cherishes her success in the movies. I'd half expected her arc to involve some kind of corrupting change of character, but she's a good person through and through (one minor, human misstep aside). Bejo's smile, sass, and infectious energy keep Peppy firmly in three dimensions; by extension, her pairing with Dujardin makes for what I hope will be an iconic silver screen couple for the ages.

So how does all of this figure into the Great Nostalgia War? Put simply, The Artist is the winner, triumphing handily over the splashier, higher-profile failures of Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin. I understand that "failure" is a strong word, especially when applied to the work of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. But there's a huge difference between verbose, hacky screenwriting masked by 3D-enhanced, cutting-edge special effects and breezy sentimentality that covers new ground while reminding the audience of what was so great about the director's object of nostalgia in the first place.

For all the claims of Hugo and Tintin being "love letters" to bygone eras, they sit on the screen, lifeless and uninteresting. Sure, there are lots of pretty things to look at and frequent bursts of kineticism, but it's crucial to remember that a movie can be bright, loud, and flashy and boring as hell (see Green Lantern). Had I not been able to guess the director/screenwriters' intentions from about minute ten, or had the films' characters not fallen so lazily into archetypes that I'd grown tired of twenty years ago, I might have appreciated what Spielberg and Scorsese were trying to say.

But one only has to look at Midnight in Paris and The Artist to realize how important innovation is to spinning a tale of nostalgia. We've all seen the struggling, neurotic screenwriter story, but how often have we seen it as a Twilight Zone-style time-travel piece that doubles as a meditation on arrested development? Yes, silent movies used to be all the rage, but we've got color and digital effects now--so why not fashion a movie that capitalizes on that technological evolution; not only storywise, but in the fabric of the film itself?* Spielberg and Scorsese meticulously and mechanically capture the look of their respective golden eras, but Allen and Hazanavicius nail the spirit--with a fraction of the budget and hype.

With digital filmmaking advancing leaps and bounds every year, it's no surprise that old-school directors are looking to the safety of a simpler past for reassurance. But if the CGI boom has taught us one thing, it's that great stories and characters still matter. They are the spark of imagination and dreams, the stuff that fills some audience members with the desire to go out and make their own films. The Artist shows us what movies were by using the best of what they are, thus mapping out a funky, cool direction of where they might go, full steam ahead.

*Dancing around another spoiler here. See the movie, and watch out for its closing moments to see what I mean.