If 2011’s films have had one recurring theme, it would be nostalgia. Whether it’s a cautious disapproval a la Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” or a full-on, golly-gee embrace of it like J.J Abrams’ “Super 8” or “War Horse”, seeing interpretations of interpretations of the past has been a really fascinating ride.
But the final word on the topic comes from Michel Hazanivicus’ “The Artist” — a black-and-white silent film. Its charms, of which there are many, include cute dogs, tap-dance numbers and evocative mugging. It goes without saying “The Artist” is a film unlike most of what you’ll see this year, but it proves a much bolder point — by reaching to devices of the past, in terms of both technology and storytelling, it creates an entertainment as fresh and vital as most “modern”-minded products of the year.
Jean Dujardin channels a mixture of Clark Gable and Buster Keaton in his depiction of silent movie-star George Valentin. Valentin is the toast of Hollywood in 1927 — right on the brink of both the Great Depression and film’s transition into films with sound. This combination proves disastrous for Valentin’s career; a parallel storyline detailing the rise of young Peppy Miller as the advent of “talkies” puts her on top of the town.
Peppy and George’s relationship is certainly the emotional center of the film, although interestingly enough it never travels down the romantic route one would expect. I cannot stress the sheer chemistry actors Jean Dujardin and Berenico Bejo strike together here. What is required of them is an exaggerated sense of emotion — they are robbed of the ability to speak, and so their faces must express twice as much and charm the audience twice as much. What’s wondrous is how Dujardin and Bejo make it seem so effortless.
And to be sure, although thoroughly charming, when the film’s more tragic moments kick in the two are more than up to the challenge, Dujardin in particular demonstrating great flexibility as an actor and emoter. The utterly adorable, fast-paced tap-dance scenes that these two share are just the cherry on top.
Ludovic Bource’s score, which is employed in nearly every scene, is both evocative of the actual music used in silent cinema, and a really catchy, bouncy piece of work. From a technical perspective, every frame of this film is an impeccable replication of the era, be it the tight close-ups, kitschy transitions, German Expressionist-influenced lighting, or even things as simple as hair-dos and clothing. “The Artist” nails it.
Don’t let me make this sound stuffy and high-minded to you — quite the opposite. Hazanivicus only employs these techniques to ensure its the most faithful recreation possible — in essence, making “The Artist” as giddy and as pure a pleasure as possible. Man, what a fun ride.
Where Hazanivicus stumbles, perhaps the only area, is the film’s pacing around the middle third. As the character George Valentin falls into a sluggish period emotionally and economically, the scenes become a little droll and repetitive. One remains hooked on the storytelling and the character’s arc, but a bit more variation could have gone a long way.
I do concede it took multiple viewings for me to fully grow to this film. I placed too much emphasis on the story, which, while important, is not really what it’s all about. “The Artist” is really about capturing a feeling, a vibe, an essence in a bottle for 100 minutes. In an interview, the writer-director stated the film taught him how complex it was to bring a bit of simplicity to the screen. Be glad he did, for the “less is more” approach resulted in a wonderful piece of entertainment. A-