Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 14, 2011 2:53 pm 
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Silent story

The Artist is another tour de force from Michel Hazanavicius, the French director known for the virtuoso tongue-in-cheek nostalgia of his James Bond-like OSS 117 spoofs based on a novel series and starring the droll and accomplished Jean Dujardin. This time Dujardin stars again, but in a black and white, "silent" film (it has a rich musical sound track, and some moments of talking and sound) that's more nostalgic and touching than satirical, and is set not in the Sixties but the Twenties and Thirties. Dujardin won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year for his appealing mime performance. It's quite a rich performance. After all, doesn't a lot of acting depend on facial and body gesture, independent of dialogue? While Hazanavicius isn't appealing to a niche audience with this wordless film like, say, Guy Madden in his, but to everybody, it remains to be seen how widely the American public will embrace such an odd movie. Nonetheless Dujardin is terrific, and so is his costar, Bérénice Bejo, playing a young talkie star who rescues the fading silent star George Valentin (Dujardin), who gave her her first start.

The Artist's director and its two main stars are French (though, for the record, Bejo was born in Argentina), but the film concerns Hollywood and was made there. The film begins with the lavish 1927 premiere of a swashbuckling silent film starring George Valentin, shown (to a glittering crowd in evening clothes) with full orchestra performing -- the scene was shot at the Orpheum Theater in Hollywood. Everything about the setting is glamorous. Vaentin is a preening mustachioed Douglas Fairbanks type who likes to include his little trick-performing dog Uggie in his films.

Both films-within-the-film and The Artist itself successfully evoke, if not every aspect of the look, at least the emotional feel of silents, and they are interrupted with explanatory titles in the traditional fashion. Valentin steals all the attention when he takes a bow after the Orpheum screening, and then outside for the crowd and the photographers he flirts with a pretty young woman (Peppy, played by Bejo). They exchange a playful kiss and a shot of it lands on the front page. The Kinograph Studios boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is annoyed that this gossip story trumps news of the movie. Peppy goes to the studio, trading on this sudden notoriety, and immediately lands a small role in Valentin's new picture -- though their relationship remains flirtatious and nothing more.

It's 1927, and silent films are about to be rendered obsolete by talkies. Peppy becomes one of the new stars of the sound era; the film chronicles her lively rise to fame and fortune. Valentin can't adapt, and his fortunes go quickly downhill. He even fires Clifton (James Cromwell), his chauffeur and faithful man Friday. In a typically simple silent-film twist, Clifton goes to work as Peppy's chauffeur. Valentin's hitherto faithful wife (Penelope Ann Miller) leaves him. After failing in the attempt to produce, direct, and star in a new silent film, he loses everything in the Wall Street Crash, turns to drink, sells all his possessions at auction, and in despair sets fire to a pile of his films in his living room, which almost kills him. Uggie saves his life. And Peppy steps in to nurse him back to health. In the final sequence, she saves him from suicide, and has the inspiration of making Valentin a star again as her dancing partner in Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers style. Their scene rehearsing a dance sequence restores the good mood the film had at its outset and links the fortunes of the two stars, old and new.

The full orchestra that accompanied the Orpheum premiere (led by OSS collaborator Ludovic Bource) plays continuously and lushly throughout the film, providing crucial support to compensate for the lack of dialogue (other than the periodic English intertitles, which are used with restraint). Uggie deserves an award too and provides his own way of spelling things out without spoken words.

Valentin has an interesting nightmare. He is in his dressing room and suddenly for the first time objects tapped on the table make a sound. Everything makes sounds now. But Valentin tries to shout and nothing comes out. How surreal silent films were, we realize!

Among other things, The Artist shows how an experienced European director with panache can produce a rich and complex film on a lesser budget. However it may be met with indifference by mainstream US audiences indifferent to film history, this is a terrifically original and entertaining film. Jean Dujardin deserved his Cannes award: he puts on a grand show, evoking Frederic March and John Gilbert as well as Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, dancing up a storm at the end in a turn with his costar worthy of Astaire and Rogers. Bejo makes a fresh and charming ingenue-star. Film buffs will enjoy catching references to Hitchcock, Welles' Citizen Kane, and many more inspirations. At the end though, this remains a narrow conceit that touches but doesn't deeply move.

The Cannes, Moscow, Montreal, Toronto, Athens, Zurich festivals have shown The Artist, as has the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. It has releases in a number of countries. Harvey Weinstein has bought the US rights and will release it in the US November 23, 2011; UK release is December 30. It opened in Paris October 12, 2011 to virtually universal acclaim from local critics.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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