It took me longer than I thought it would, but I did finally get around to seeing “The Artist” which (as I write this) is the favorite to win Best Picture at the 2012 Oscars. Many would like to see a silent film win the big prize as it would be the first in decades to do so. It’s also nice to see a filmmaker reach back to when the movie industry was in its infancy, just like what Martin Scorsese did with “Hugo.” “The Artist” however doesn’t quite reach the same level of greatness as “Hugo” did (or “The Tree of Life” for that matter), but it’s still a masterful piece of filmmaking with great performances all around.
The story here is one that has been told a million times before; George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star who sees his great career suddenly crash to the ground when sound is introduced into motion pictures. Valentin resists this change, feeling it’s a fad that will pass by quickly. Of course, we all know that is not going to be the case.
As his career is ruined, another actress who befriended Valentin named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) embraces this technological advance in cinema and sees her star rise to the heavens as a result. She has gotten great and truly genuine advice from Valentin in how to make her mark as an actress, and she forever holds a special place in her heart for him. So it comes to deeply hurt her seeing him fall apart so badly as his life is made even more difficult with the 1929 stock-market crash. Will Peppy save George and help him make a comeback?
That the plot of “The Artist” is such an old one ended up taking away from the overall experience it offers as you know where it’s headed and that everything will eventually be alright. All you can hope is that the director and the actors keep things interesting so that you’re not thinking about the outcome too much. That’s where this movie succeeds because the performances are so rich and the direction is nothing short of excellent.
Jean Dujardin looks like he walked right out of a 1920s silent film, and he was clearly born to play George Valentin. In doing a movie within a movie, he manages to balance out Valentin the star and Valentin the man. Much of the acting in silent films involved a lot of mugging, and it’s great fun to watch Dujardin getting all ready to shoot a scene as he makes clear how much he is playing for the camera. But when Valentin is not making a movie, Dujardin’s performance becomes all the more remarkable as he expresses emotions he is not in a position to verbalize.
That’s the thing about screen acting; the most powerful moments in a movie can come from just one look from an actor. Being able to make clear what a character is thinking without saying it out loud is the big challenge of acting on camera, and in “The Artist” the actors have to work even harder because words will not save them (not even when certain dialogue is put on the screen for all to see). That they succeed in drawing us in emotionally with little in the way of sound is a testament to their talents.
Matching Dujardin scene for scene is Bejo who plays rising film star Peppy Miller. Bejo is a joy to behold in this film as she is an infinitely appealing presence here, and that smile lights up many a man’s hearts. Seeing her actress character rise to the level of a movie star is endless fun, but she also keeps Peppy a likable character even when success really threatens to spoil her rotten. That made me like Peppy all the more.
There are a slew of other great performances to be found in “The Artist” which like “The Descendants” doesn’t have a weak one to be found. John Goodman looks like he’s having a marvelous time channeling his “Matinee” character for the role of studio boss Al Zimmer. James Cromwell is very touching as Valentin’s loyal butler Clifton as he becomes the conscience the fallen movie star needs to hear. It’s also great to see Penelope Ann Miller here as Valentin’s wife Doris, a character who doesn’t seem to least bit satisfied with this marriage.
But the one who almost upstages them all is Uggie as Valentin’s ever so faithful Jack Russell terrier Jack. He reminded me of Mike the Dog who stole many scenes in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” and like him Uggie becomes as big a character as the humans here. That he is able to convey certain emotions to where he gets a police officer to save his owner from certain death is amazing. His performance tops off what has been a great year for dogs at the movies along with “Beginners.” Isn’t it about time the Oscars give an animal a special Oscar for their work?
Director Michel Hazanavicius stays very true to the way silent films were shot back in the day, and his extensive research of them certainly shows. He makes “The Artist” look like it really came from the 1920s as it transports you back in time to that period. His also served well by a beautiful film score by Ludovic Bource which heightens the already strong emotions to great effect, and by cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman who gives “The Artist” a striking look that doesn’t betray any of today’s technological advances which may have been used here.
Having said all this, “The Artist” doesn’t quite strike me as Best Picture material as no one is breaking new ground with it. Plus, with such a familiar story it feels like we are getting hit by a case of deja vu. Still, it’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking that you owe it to yourself to watch. Along with “Hugo,” many may look back at 2011 as the year movies reached back in time to remind us of what a magical experience they were in the first place.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
Other articles by Ben Kenber: