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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 8.11%
Average: 35.14%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

4 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Artist, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Close to a perfect tribute to (and recreation of) the silent era."
5 stars

Look back through my reviews here, and you'll see that "The Artist" had a better-than-usual shot at appealing to me: I go to most any silent movie that plays the local repertory houses, and liked the "OSS 117" movies that director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin did together (particularly the first, which also paired Dujardin with his co-star here, Bérénice Bejo). I'm not saying to take my opinion with a grain of salt, though - Hazanavicius doesn't rely on nostalgia or previous goodwill, but creates a movie that captures the delights of the silent era perfectly while acknowledging the inevitability of its end.

The film opens in 1927, with the Hollywood premiere of the new film starring George Valentin (Dujardin), a star of adventure movies in the Douglas Fairbanks mode. It's a smash, and while he's holding court on the red carpet, a young lady accidentally winds up on the wrong side of the velvet rope, winding up on the front page of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?". She's Peppy Miller (Bejo), and she bumps into Valentin again when she gets chosen as an extra for his new movie. Her beauty and charm soon have her moving up the ladder, while Valentin's refusal to even consider talkies has him headed for a rapid fall.

After a set of retro-styled opening credits, Hazanavicius opts not to mince words, with Valentin's on-screen alter ego yelling "I won't talk!" at a mad scientist, followed by a "No Talking" sign as the action moves to Valentin waiting behind the movie screen for his introduction. It's an instruction he will mostly hold to, as he and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman shoot the film in a period-appropriate squarish frame (see it on your town's narrowest screen!), in crisp black and white, with dialog delivered via inter-titles and Ludovic Bource's score tasked with implying sound effects. The filmmakers display incredible affection for this 1920s style of filmmaking, only rarely doing things that couldn't have been done at the time and never stooping to parody - once they've decided to make a silent film, they know that they can't break the rules lightly.

That's not to say that they don't break the rules, just that when they do so, they do it in as flawless a way as they adopted those rules to begin with. Hazanavicius and company know their stuff, and perfectly sidestep things that trip up many contemporary pastiches. There's only as many inter-title cards as the story requires, for instance; once they've established why two characters are yelling at each other, the intensity of the argument is what matters, not the specific words. There's a pivotal scene that could have felt ridiculous even if it were in the gothic melodrama where it seems to belong but which instead allows the audience to not only get the reference but enjoy it completely without irony.

Most importantly, though, Hazanavicius does a spectacular job of balancing comedy and drama, realism and fantasy, innocence and heartbreak. It's a very funny movie that never strays too far from its dramatic core, and is able to engage in nostalgia without elevating the past over the modern (it's similar to Hazanavicius's OSS 117 movies in this way, though with a much less mocking tone). As much as it chronicles an often-bitter fall from grace, its humor is almost never mean-spirited; it doesn't ask the audience to derive joy from Valentin's suffering and gets a lot of laughs from the antics of his loyal terrier - and having the dog around makes us more willing to forgive Valentin's selfishness and egotism.

Uggy The Dog is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Canine, and the human supporting cast is nifty as well: Missi Pyle, for instance, is a great choice for one of Valentin's co-stars - she's only there briefly, but she's great at doing silent comedy without it being slapstick. I almost wish Penelope Ann Miller was as demonstrative as Valentin's wife Doris; it can't be a lot of fun to get cast in a silent movie and have little to do but look sour. John Goodman (as a studio executive) and James Cromwell (as Valentin's loyal butler/driver) are both excellent - the parts fit them like gloves, and knowing their voices doesn't detract from the illusion at all.

Many Americans likely won't have that sort of familiarity with the leads, and maybe that will feel like a positive, letting them become forgotten stars from the early days of cinema. Both are kind of wonderful in these roles, with Bérénice Bejo giving Peppy the expansive, larger-than-life confidence and magnetism that makes her rise seem inevitable as well as just nailing all the physical details, like the very specific way fashionable young ladies in silent films walked. Jean Dujardin, meanwhile, gives George all the pride that the screenplay points out as his downfall - both as a tragic flaw and as a funny tendency to enjoy the limelight. They've got a great chemistry together that goes beyond setting them up as a potential romantic pairing - just watch a great scene on a staircase where George has to swallow a great deal of anger and bitterness in the face of her enthusiasm; it's amazing to see just how great the pair are even with a few of their normal tools not available.

Now, I don't know if "The Artist" will ultimately appeal to people who don't already go for silent films. It should - it's both a loving salute to and a fine example of the form - but people can sometimes balk at the unfamiliar. Hopefully they'll give this a try anyway; it would be a delight even with sound and color, but recreating this era makes it something really special.

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originally posted: 11/18/11 02:18:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2011 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/09/12 David Hollingsworth A film that sticks with you, way after the credits are over 5 stars
5/21/12 Colin Firth I wish I wasn't so all mighty graceless and could dance like Jean. 5 stars
5/17/12 Geraldine Fun and super enjoyable. 5 stars
4/05/12 Call me anytime I have to learn French Jean Dejardin I love you.. 5 stars
4/03/12 merp Quality filmmaking, interesting 4 stars
4/03/12 Lillian Gish Liked this movie on first viewing. Now thinking about it, I like it even more. 5 stars
3/26/12 Archie Leach A film that will stand the test of time. 5 stars
3/09/12 Suzz interesting film making, good performances but boring 3 stars
2/13/12 R.W. Welch A little slow in spots, but strong finale. Good score. B+ 4 stars
2/03/12 mr.mike It's best feature was in not taking itself too seriously. 4 stars
1/23/12 Peter Van Howe I saw this movie last night (Jan. 22, 12). I can't get it out of my head! Going again now! 5 stars
12/22/11 Isaac This movie was phenomenal. It will certainly win Best Picture this year at the Oscars. 5 stars
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  23-Nov-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 26-Jun-2012

  30-Dec-2011 (PG)

  DVD: 26-Jun-2012

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