Film festivals dream of an opening film such as “The Artist.” Soundless, colorless, but never heartless, the film plays out like director Michel Hazanavicius’ love letter to early 1920s and ’30s cinema.
George Valentin is a popular silent film star whose career is at an all-time high. As played by Jean Dujardin, Valentin can’t help but bring to mind Gene Kelly’s character from “Singin’ in the Rain.”
The very first scenes in the film, in which Valentin showboats and dances for an adoring crowd, give off the same sense of charming rebelliousness that Kelly’s character did so well. That Dujardin captured that essence without the aid of sound and instead relied on his body language and facial expressions speaks of his skill.
Let it never be said that Dujardin did not deserve the Best Actor Award he received at the Cannes Film Festival for this film.
High on life, Valentin bumps into Peppy Miller, a young woman who dreams of becoming famous. Bérénice Bejo plays the hopeful actress with such earnestness and enthusiasm that you fall in love with her character as easily as the audience in the film does.
She strides into her first casting call with so much confidence and energy that just like her ’20s audience, you forget she is starting out as an extra, not a star. It’s the advent of “talkies,” however, that launch Miller’s career into the sky.
When studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shares with Valentin his plan to transition to talking pictures, the latter laughs off the idea. The scene that follows portrays Valentin’s true thoughts on the matter: he dreams of a world where everything makes a sound, except for him.
“The Artist” doesn’t shy away from using sound to aid the story, which saves it from becoming a gimmick. The image of a panicked, disheveled Valentin silently screaming to his mirror is a powerful look into the character’s mind. It’s arguably the film’s most iconic scene, and can’t be put into words. As it turns out, it’s also an omen of things to come.
Valentin’s life falls to pieces around him, even as Miller’s does the complete opposite and “Singin’ in the Rain” is replaced by “A Star is Born.” There’s a wonderfully shot scene that illustrates this perfectly. Valentin has just been fired by the studio, and been effectively replaced by Miller as the go-to star. On his way down to the street, he meets Miller in the middle of the staircase. As they interact and talk, the camera pulls back to show a long column separating the two.
Miller, the beautiful new actress of an emerging era, stands on one side and Valentin, the old guard of an era being quickly forgotten and dismissed, on the other. It’s one of those rare moments in film where the point is made without being overly subtle or obvious.
The power of the scene is somewhat diminished by an almost identically shot scene less than 30 minutes later, however. For a film like this, once is magic, twice is obvious.
While the film does at times look a little too “Hollywood” instead of “Hollywoodland,” Hazanavicius and his crew capture the true magic of the silent films of that era, most notably the energy and emotional appeal. Similarly the music can at times be more elaborate and modern in its tastes than what may have accompanied old silent films.
And yet its inherent vigor provides a huge emotional boost to “The Artist.” As Valentin’s life hits lower and lower depths, the music itself becomes depressed and alarmingly manic. It’s enough to make you fear for Valentin’s life. When the music swells as Valentin and Miller finally share the romantic feelings that have been building between them, there’s a physical sense of relief and love.
In the end, “The Artist” is a love story not just between the characters, but also between filmmakers and silent films. They know the subject they’re paying homage to, and their expertise results in a film that embodies everything that’s great about classic silent films.Contact Carlos Serrano.