by Tim Ross
With Hollywood spending millions of dollars on bankable stars, comic book blockbusters, remakes of TV shows and sequels to any film with a hint of box office success, it’s a breath of fresh air to watch a film like “The Artist.” It’s a silent movie – yes, a contemporary film with no words.
Writer and director Michel Hazanavicius has created a piece of cinema that’s original while also familiar to anyone who loves classic films. Hazanavicius is best known for his two adventure comedies in the “OSS 117” series – a sort of comic take on the James Bond franchise – and he teams up with his star from those films, Jean Dujardin, for “The Artist.”
Dujardin plays George Valentin, a major star of the silent film era. The year is 1927, and talking pictures are on the way. But, for the moment, the spotlight belongs to Valentin. While being mobbed after his latest premiere, George bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, also from the “OSS 117” films), a star-struck new arrival to Hollywood.
The media goes gaga over this unknown girl who catches George’s eye and the two are linked thereafter. As Peppy begins a long, steady ascent to stardom, George watches his career being drowned out by talkies and the stock market crash of 1929.
The rise of Peppy and the fall of George are paced in perfect sync, like dance partners sharing the floor, each journey captivating our attention. For each acting triumph for Peppy, there is a setback for George. His career falters then fades, his wife leaves him, the market crash ruins him and he may be descending into madness and delusion.
George’s failures are often spectacular but, as the film is silent, we are left to fill in the blanks of his despair. I was reminded of the urban legend that a frog will stay in boiling water if you heat it slowly enough. Almost before we know it, George is at the end of a terrifying spiral and Peppy is on top of the entertainment world.
Hazanavicius is a gifted writer and his tale unfolds to an amazing score by Ludovic Bource, another frequent collaborator.
And while it’s a film about the end of one film era and the star who represents it, it’s also a story about the dangers of pride and the very human fear of change. It could apply to the anxiety every aging generation feels for the changes that younger generations embrace.
“The Artist” is original, and yet predictable. It’s a new style for today’s audiences while paying homage to very familiar genres including the swashbuckler, the studio musical and the “star is born” theme. Hazanavicius and his crew capture the mood, texture and look of the silent era and his two stars take care of the rest.
Well-known actors such as John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell have small and somewhat savory roles, but the film belongs to Dujardin and Bejo and they don’t disappoint. They may not be known to American audiences, but they mastered the silent film style and are a delight to watch.
If you’ve seen a year’s worth of films so loud they shake the walls of the cinema, start this year off with something quieter. “The Artist” may be a silent film, but its creator and stars may well have something to say when the Academy Awards come around next month.
Grade: 3 1/2 out of 4
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman
Studio: The Weinstein Company