The Artist (4 out 5 Stars)
Directed and Written by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, and John Goodmand
The first silent film I saw was the 1915 film The Tramp. The Tramp was directed by, written by, and starred Charlie Chaplin. I watched the film in one of my college classes. We watched the film because of its commentary on capitalism and the American dream. One thing I remember most about the film experience was the brilliant way in which Chaplin was able to convey more without speaking than some actors do with their words; he had a presence. Chaplin's physically bumbling characteristics show one of the most common trends within his films. Silent films like this one tended to use highly expressive physical action and facial expressions to help convey the details of the story.
The Artist starts with silent film George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) premiering his film to an audience where he does the exact same things Chaplin did in his films. George is this hammy star who does a lot "mugging" for the camera in his films and in real life; he is a major silent film star and the audiences love him. Valentin takes almost five minutes of applause for himself and his canine companion from the film, a sign of his charm and ego. The next day after the premier Valentin has a "meet-cute" with a young woman named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who drops her autograph book, and bumps into George. George helps Peppy on her path to become an actress adding a mole to her face, and helping her to understand what she needs to do to be a success. As Peppy starts to get more work George is brought into the office by the studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodmand) who tells George talk talkies are the way of the future and they will be moving away from making silent films.
Michel Hazanavicius created a wonderfully charming film. Hazanavicius does a great job paying homage to an era of film that has been forgotten. Hazanavicius has not turned his back on different advances in creating cinema; he has honored the past cinematic experiences to forge ahead. Guillame Schiffman's cinematography is more traditional, but creates a stunning visually sumptuous film. Ludovic Bource's score is more traditional, and reminds me of the days of old Hollywood, but the music transports you into the world of the silent era. Combined these elements pave the way to watch as the audience is transported back into the history of cinema.
This film has a similar story arc to the classic film version of A Star is Born. George is an aging actor who sees everything slipping away from him as Peppy the young and newly popular starlet is embraced and helps launch talkies for the Kinograph studio. Dujardin is charming as George and does a good job evolving from the bubbly Chaplin like fellow to the aging star who has lost his claim to fame. Bejo's Peppy reminded me of the old Hollywood starlet; she is a cute, but strong female. In the world of old Hollywood women had gumption, Bejo's portrayal of Peppy captures this well. Together these two make of the most charming on screen couples. Like within old films there are fireworks, and love at first sight, and through simple acts we get the feeling that these two belong together. My favorite moment is when Peppy is waiting for George in his dressing room and pretends her arm is through tux, and he walks in on her.
Together these things make one solid film. I respect Hazanavicius's ambition; he took a difficult concept and made it work. In this era of pessimism film makers have moved away from light hearted/fun film making. The film challenges the conventional norms, and like some other films uses nostalgia to convey the evolution of film has no ending in site.