Silence is golden
Writer(s): Michel Hazanavicius
Stars: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman and James Cromwell
In the 1920s, French director Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist would have been a modern spectacle; people would have queued outside the theater in the same way today's audience camps for Twilight and Harry Potter. Now it's considered an art house picture and shown at indie theaters -- a hunting ground for cinema majors and scowling, young hipsters (who order green tea instead of large Cokes at the concessions stand). Typical moviegoers bypass the two-screened theater and move en masse to the closest AMC for the latest comic book adaptations, rom-coms and Spielberg war-dramas starring pretty horses. For the most part, they ignore smaller, quieter films.
But The Artist is by no means small or quiet.
"I'm not telling! I won't talk!" 1920s action romantic George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) screams, but the words do not escape his mouth. We've read them from a title card. It's the perfect beginning to Hazanavicius' The Artist, a black and white, silent film, which won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role, (but definitely not Best Sound Editing).
The Artist follows the decline of a star, and the rise of another. George Valentin embodies the Hollywood mystic (think Brad Pitt, minus the talking and the adopted kids). Mustachioed, slicked black hair, perfect teeth -- he personifies fame. The public adores him, and he basks in the light of the paparazzi's flash bulbs (the early TMZ). Valentin is elegant, classy and vain (he owns a giant self-portrait and uses every reflective surface as a mirror).
Valentin's love for red carpet pomp quite literally knocks him into gorgeous and innocent Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whose encounter with the playboy attracts the attention of the press and Valentin's bighead producer, Al Zimmer (John Goodman, chewing on a fat cigar in every scene).
Meanwhile, the evolution of "talkies," pictures with sound, overtakes the silent film era and Valentin becomes an outdated relic in a fast-moving system. Unwilling to change with the times, Valentin takes a box seat to his own demise. He watches his career burn to the ground as Millers' rises from the ashes.
With The Artist, Hazanavicius has crafted a masterful revival of the silent era. To steal the words from his own mouth, "it's a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema." Some have hailed the film a homage to the silent era, others a reformed cinematic history lesson, but for me, The Artist excels at being an entertaining unveiling of the past in a time when big dance numbers preceded Baysplosions and when class prevailed over clichés.
That veneer of spirit and class manifests wholeheartedly in the acting, which is a work of art in itself. Dujardin and Bejo et al carry 140 minutes on facial expressions and frosty stares. Dujardin switches from charismatic smile to pure desolation with a snap of his fingers, which he does a lot considering the amount of dancing, feet tapping and winking. (It's a genuine surprise John Travolta didn't beg for the role).
Although twirling and bopping play an unforgettable part in The Artist, the scenes with less high energy capture the most poignancy. A surreal dream in which Valentin struggles to find his voice, followed by a Howard Hughes-esque meltdown in his projection room, warrant his Oscar-worthy and winning performance. We never doubt his inflections or his intensity. We gladly share his emotions, even when it pains us.
Bejo, who was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (she lost to Octavia Spencer for The Help), has some endearing moments, too, including a scene in which she slips her arm into Valentin's empty coat and embraces herself. The famed actor's faux-butt-squeeze inspires her -- it's the closest she's ever been to fame and fortune, and maybe even to love.
Critics have cited the chemistry between Dujardin and Bejo and, boy, are they charming. However, the true chemistry exists between Dujardin and his Jack Russell Terrier, Uggie. Where's the Oscar for Best Performance by a Leading Animal? Hand it to our four-legged friend. (Of course, competition would have been high this year with the entire cast of We Bought a Zoo, including Matt Damon, competing). Perhaps, you watched the 69th Annual Golden Globes. If so, you understand that adorable rascal's charm. While Hazanavicius accepted the trophy for Best Comedy or Musical and thanked the HFPA and his mom, Dujardin had the dog on his hind legs, dancing, and then playing dead. The film term, here, is scene-stealer. It also helps that the dog is Dujardin's animal doppelgänger (doggiegänger?).
But behind every great actor, there is a boom operator, and a gaffer and a whole crew of skilled techy wizards, who make the movie magic. And The Artist is a technical marvel -- the aesthetic choices, like sets, costumes, and props, echo the atmosphere of the era (enough to snag an Oscar for Best Costume Design). However, Hazanavicius and team didn't stop there, as with most historical dramas. They took the concept further and have recreated a period piece for the period in which it is set. Not only is the film in black and white, and silent, it's shot on 35mm in academy ratio (1:33), a custom ratio used in most silent films, which values symmetry and balance. You don't have to be tech savvy (or a nerdy cinephile like me) to appreciate the effect. The actors fill the screen, which emphasizes character over backdrop. Even the frame rate, which is customarily 24 fps, was lowered to 22 fps to match the speed of 1920s film stock (and that makes a huge difference -- trust me!).
That's not to say the film is completely grounded in the period -- it's not. For example, a few scenes aren't even silent, which is a pleasant, but fitting surprise. Back in the day (i.e., the 1920s), theaters hired orchestras to accompany the music, sometimes actors to dub the dialogue. Here, Ludovic Bource's Oscar winning score plays over 98 percent of the film. While the score is beautiful and certainly progresses the pace (it never drags), the two percent without sound is the best and most endearing part of the film. I understand the significance of these moments, how the hallowing silence affects our humble protagonist, but I wish Hazanavicius had included more truly "silent scenes." In an extremely loud world with roaring trains and robot sex and Owen Wilson rambling, a little quietude feels good.
The Artist has everything the Academy loves in a movie. It's an excellent period piece (even if it doesn't star Keira Knightly); it's a tale of redemption starring a beloved, tragic hero; and it boldly goes to new places (or rather, returns to old ones). A black and white, silent picture in today's 3D- and CGI-ridden world is a serious gamble. But it pays off.
After all, silence is golden.