The Artist is an exquisite love letter to cinema, a tribute in perhaps the highest form possible as it is couched within the framework of a silent film, where all the power of the story comes from the slightest expression, the cast of light and shadow, and a gloriously emotive score.
The film opens in 1927 at the premiere of A Russian Affair, the latest silent film from handsome and charismatic leading man George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Valentin is a real charmer. :) As played by Dujardin (I confess to being completely in love with this man now), Valentin is a heady mixture of Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Charles Boyer. I am not kidding people, he's that good.
After the premiere, while posing for photographers, Valentin meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), following the most adorable meet cute ever, and the two make a splash with the press. The chemistry between them is immediate and electric, and explodes on film when Peppy gets her big break and is cast as a dancer in Valentin's newest film. With some insightful guidance, veteran George gives Peppy the advice that sets her on the path to stardom, just as everything is about to change in Hollywood with the advent of sound.
If you've lived, breathed, and memorized large portions of Singin' In the Rain (just speaking for myself here), the basic plot threads will be familiar to you. While The Artist hearkens back to Singin' In the Rain, since it is a silent film it is a more powerful and heart-rending portrait of what an industry in flux, during the transition from silence to sound, what that meant for the artists whose whole lives were wrapped up in the world of silent films. There's also a moment in the film, when George's possessions are auctioned, that recalled another musical favorite -- The Band Wagon, where Fred Astaire faces the indignity of all of his trademarks and famous props being auctioned as supposedly his style of acting, his identity if you will, has fallen out of favor in Hollywood.
And, in a touch somewhat reminiscent of A Star is Born, as Peppy's star rises George finds his own dimming, as his brand of filmmaking -- and in many ways his identity itself -- falls out of favor and sets him adrift. I couldn't help but remember filmmaker Georges Melies and his story as told in Hugo -- how when he's forced into bankruptcy and his style of filmmaking falls out of favor, he has much of his work destroyed. In both of these films both Melies and Valentin are faced with extraordinarily painful circumstances that force them to question their chosen art and their very identities. And in both cases, each man is surrounded by those who would love them and remind them that the only limitations they place on themselves are self-imposed, and the choice is theirs to stagnate in heartbreak or embrace a new chapter in their lives.
I want to give a brief nod to some of the stellar supporting players that make up the cast of The Artist, starting with Missi Pyle as Constance, Valentin's temperamental costar in A Russian Affair. Pyle's performance is a spot-on imitiation of Jean Hagen's gloriously shrill Lina Lamont in Singin' In the Rain, right down to the posture and hairstyle. I also loved seeing Penelope Ann Miller as George's troubled wife Doris -- her clothes were to die for! And James Cromwell turns in a fantastic performance as George's ever-loyal chauffer/manservant.
Perhaps the best supporting performance, though, goes to Uggie the terrier as George's loyal dog. Uggie also appeared in Water for Elephants, and is apparently now retiring at the ripe old age of ten. Uggie is an absolute charmer, and his scenes with George -- oh my goodness I loved them. LOVED them!
There is apparently some controversy over the use of portions of Bernard Hermann's score for Vertigo in this film -- you can read about that here. That aside, Ludovic Bource's work on this film is absoutely amazing, a must-have for film score fans.
It is no stretch to say that I loved absolutely everything about this film. The Artist begs to be seen on the big screen, and if you get the opportunity please, please go. From its presentation in the old aspect ratio of 1:33:1 ("full screen") to the costumes, lights, and sets, the film has an inimitible style and presence that fully immerses you in its world. It is a rare chance today to be given the opportunity to see a story unfold on-screen as our grandparents and great-grandparents did. Listen to the audience's reactions, pay attention to your own response to the film -- this is old school storytelling brilliantly realized on-screen. It's an experience this film junkie postively revelled in.
It is a rare film where I leave the theater feeling so thoroughly satisfied. As the credits began to roll my first thought was how on earth did this film get in my head and get me, because it is so completely tailored to everything I love about films and storytelling and the life-affirming power of such art. My heartfelt thanks to director Michel Hazanavicius and the entire team and cast who brought this film to life. The Artist is a perfect little gem of a film that is -- trust me on this -- not to be missed. I can't wait to revisit it!
|Look at that smile!|