Lights, camera and, most importantly, action! In a cinematic world full of subtlety, nuance, mumblecore and scathing dialogue, Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” proves that the good old-fashioned concept of story is still the key to winning the public’s heart.
After losing the award of Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2011 to “The Tree of Life,” the French director ultimately earned recognition just two days ago at the Golden Globes, bringing in the titles of Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture and Best Original Score. And the momentum is on the upswing; media buzz indicates the film is Academy Award and Oscar-bound.
Hazanavicius rather expertly casts the French actor, comedian and dreamboat Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a swarthy, sparkly-toothed and charmingly arrogant silent film star who seems to have it all (fame, adoration, a faithful terrier and a quickly deteriorating marriage). With the entrance of Peppy Miller, the image of the all-American girl aptly and ironically played by Hazanavicius’ wife, Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo, this all begins to change.
Miller — both serendipitously and ominously — introduces herself into the actor’s life when she accidentally bumps into him at his publicity event. After mugging for the press cameras (who love her, they really love her!), the peppy young lady decides to pursue her career in film. Thus she ends up on the set of Valentin’s current movie, becomes infatuated with him and, his own certain smarminess aside, Valentin himself seems particularly taken with her.
The progression of these events, of course, is played out ingeniously in an authentic silent film fashion. Audiences can trace the refreshingly innocent love blooming between Miller and Valentin through the director’s usage of a story within a story within a story; that is, we watch Valentin become flustered and giddy as he films a scene with Miller, forcing the directors to redo the simple shot numerous times.
Most of the film follows in a similar genre. Hazanavicius uses repetition of scenes and tricks with sound-sans-dialogue in order to denote many details of the film, from lapses in time to dream sequences. And yet, there is a distinct difference between the film’s first half and its latter. After various foreshadowing, the early Depression era cinema’s impending shift to “talkie” films becomes a reality. Valentin scoffs, Miller jumps — Valentin is unemployed and Miller is America’s new cinema darling.
From there, the film takes a pretty dark turn for a comedy. Its ability to do this is due largely to Dujardin’s striking ability to maintain the quirky-corny elements of silent film-acting while still creating a character and portraying emotions that are altogether relatable. Harkening strongly back to classic silent film stars like John Gilbert, it’s evident Dujardin’s performance is, at least, a studied one. Yet despite the fact that George Valentin’s sole existence is in fact a caricature of the classic old Hollywood star, he remains very much a human being.
On the other hand, it would be an insult to fail to mention the numerous lighting tropes that serve to deliciously dampen the mood of the film’s otherwise cartoon-esque world in the director’s artistic and decidedly French custom.
“The Artist” is a delightful example that filmmakers are still willing to play with techniques that were recently discarded in the wake of special affects and the sexualization of the movie industry. The fact that “The Artist” is earning international acclaim is the cinephile optimist’s testament to the belief that modern audiences might not be as jaded as we think they are.