In the late 1920s, a strange technological development made its first appearance in the world of cinema: sound. It wasn’t, however, until 1927 that synchronized sound made itself important, with the incredibly successful musical The Jazz Singer, which film historians credit as Hollywood’s official entry into the era of the talkies.
It is in this setting that The Artist, this year’s underdog movie, takes place. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (all three collaborated on the successful French OSS 117 spy movies), The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (a more than excellent Dujardin), a silent movie-star who is in denial of the changing nature of movies.
Sound was rejected by many actors who claimed that adding speech to movies would make them less artistic. They regarded themselves as artists, capable of conveying genuine emotion without having to speak. Interestingly for George, the arrival of sound coincides with his accidental meeting of a pretty young thing during a media scrum at the premiere of one of his movies. The girl is the bubbly Peppy Miller (the beautiful Argentinian Bejo), who obviously has a crush on George Valentin and whose biggest wish is to make it in the movies.
After their meeting, George continues to star in musketeer dramas for a few years – while Peppy is slowly climbing the acting ladder, starting as a dancing extra, and slowly making her way up as a supporting actress. By 1930, with the star system at its height, Peppy Miller is the ‘it’ girl, sporting her “beauty spot” (a drawn beauty mark) in magazines and on posters.
George Valentin, however, has fallen out of the scene. His firm refusal to make sound movies has resulted in the studio boss’ (fantastically played by John Goodman) decision to drop him . “People want talking faces,” he tells the once-upon-a-time silent movie heartthrob. Valentin becomes a recluse, forced to sell all of his belongings in order to survive. Erich von Stroheim said “In Hollywood you’re only as good as your last picture,” and this truth resonates as much today as it did then. George Valentin falls victim to Hollywood’s unending appetite for new things, and is eaten up in the long run. Audiences now have room for some “fresh meat” in their bellies, as the studio boss tells him.
The Artist brilliantly mixes romantic comedy, film noir, and even musical – three of the most popular movie genres of the ‘30s. As you already know, it is also a silent film shot in black and white (and ohmygod, it has subtitles!). Director Michel Hazavanicius pays tribute to a ‘dead’ medium. Nowadays, directors make black and white movies with great caution, not to mention making a silent film. The Artist was something of a dangerous bet. It’s as if all Hollywood directors have silently agreed audiences aren’t into that anymore (well, since the ‘30s, at least). Special sound effects and explosion reels are, somewhat, the bread and butter of modern movie audiences. Therefore, it isn’t a stretch to say that The Artist is done through simple pleasure and love for film history. Its goal is not blockbuster success, but pure artistic appeal.
Hazavanicius’ film is a love letter to silent, as well as sound movies, from the late ‘20s and ‘30s. Valentin’s fall seems provoked by the apparition of the femme fatale and is reminiscent of George Wilhelm Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box, in which Louise Brooks’ character is responsible for the fall of each man captured in her web. The famous actor’s reclusion and constant struggle to remind everyone that he was once a star and that “it is [him] they come to see” is a quiet bow to Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson plays a long-forgotten movie star living alone in her mansion. Some of the comical bits about the switch to sound in Hollywood will make you think of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Undoubtedly sprinkled with tributes, The Artist is a movie that film students and hardcore movie lovers will adore.
Making a silent movie is not as easy for actors today as it must have been in the past; there is now a strong reliance on dialogue delivery to convey tone and emotion. The entire cast of The Artist masters this challenge as if they have been doing nothing but silent films their entire lives. Jean Dujardin has come a long way since 2005’s Brice de Nice, and he has since enjoyed great praise in France (most recently in Guillaume Canet’s dramedy Les Petits Mouchoirs). But his turn as George Valentin is no doubt his best role yet, on both sides of the ocean. He won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year, and is a strong contendant for the 2011 Oscar.
Bejo and Dujardin have great chemistry, and the fact that they have worked together before really shines through. You will also appreciate the value of John Goodman and James Cromwell (who plays Valentin’s driver) as character actors, precisely because of their Fellini-like faces. Careful not to get lost in the arch of Goodman’s eyebrows or the wrinkles on Cromwell’s worried face when Valentin fires his character from duty. Another important performance not to be overlooked is that of Valentin’s puppy, who may just be the best trained dog I have seen in a movie (since As Good As It Gets).
The Artist is a true silver-screen gem that spurs from romantic nostalgia for the lost glamour of Hollywood. At the end, you’ll be left with no words other than “Awwww.”
By Radina Papukchieva
Follow me on twitter @Papukchieva