Artist, The (2011): Hazanavicius’s Charming Silent Film

A silent feature, in black-and-white and in full length, is not exactly the most commercially viable proposition in today’s market, and yet Michel Hazanavicius’s new French silent feature, The Artist, is so charming and enjoyable that it should overcome any objection along these lines.

World-premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest (in competition), where it won the acting kudo, The Artist will be released in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company in the fall, in time for Oscar considerations.

With the kind of critical support and rapturous audience response that the movie had received in Cannes, the Weinstein may have a victorious release, not just for cinephiles, and a strong shot at the Oscars (in various categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor).

A smart and knowing homage to the silent era, The Artist is set in the crucial era of 1927-1931, during the revolutionary transition from silent to talkies.  But it is not a nostalgic or sentimental picture–it does not lament a bygone era, or the good ol’ days.

What’s most striking about “The Artist” is that it doesn’t try to recreate a silent movie in historically authentic mode, the way they used to make them.  Instead, the movie looks from a contemporary standpoint at the kind of storytelling, direction, acting, and visual style that had defined that era (the swinging 1920s).

In other words, “The Artist” aims at evoking the spirit, the essence, the glamour, and the joy of making (and watching) silent films.  This is evident in every frame, from the opening credits, through the inter-titles, which are clever, cool, and tongue-in-cheek, to the expectedly cheerful happy ending.

The protag is a movie star named George Valentin (played exuberantly by Jean Dujardin), and the film is very much a tale of the rise and fall of this handsome matinee idol, who reaches the height of his fame before the advent of the talkies, which called for a new breed of stars and new style of acting.

Indeed, the film charts Valentin’s high moments, when his swagger used to disarm all those around him, as well as the lows, when fate causes his tragic fall.

Along the way, he meets (or rather bumps into) Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a wannabe starlet, during a photo shoot, and the two immediately bond.

Jean Dujardin, a stalwart of French cinema, plays Valentin as a cross between Gable and his macho charm, Cary Grant and his smooth movements, and Douglas Fairbanks and his physical capabilities. Watching Dujardin, I was also reminded of another French actor, Maurice Chevalier, during the time he made Hollywood movies with Ernst Lubitch.  He is breathtakingly effective in two roles, in both the film and the film-within-film.

As the young starlet, soon to become a leading lady, who represents Hollywood’s new style, Berenice Bejo is sexy and beautiful, demonstrating quite a range of moods, from mild to wild, and from eros to pathos.

Uggy the Dog

Special mention should be given to Uggy the dog, which shows incredibly nuanced comic timing, and plays a crucial role in the plot (down to life-saving).  The tenacious, ultra-alert Boston terrier, his co-star, is very much present and stealing most of the scenes he is in.