I know this is a weird statement to start a movie review with in August, but it has to be said: Oscar hype sucks. All of the hoopla surrounding the awards show and the movies involved with them becomes so suffocating that it is becoming harder and harder to separate the noise from the movies themselves. As you know, “The Artist,” a small silent-film produced in France by an unknown director and starring two unknown actors, cleaned up at the awards, winning Best Picture, Actor, Director, etc. A lot of people (including myself) thought other films that weren’t even nominated were clearly superior, but the fact that “Artist” won so many awards, like “King’s Speech” the year before, caused people to raise their expectations so much and punish the film for not being as good as Harvey Weinstein and his Legion of Doom want everyone to think. We shouldn’t punish movies for the hype created by their producers.
So despite all of that, the most important question remains. Is “The Artist” actually a worthwhile film? It is not even close to being the best movie of 2011 (my favorites were “50/50” “Tree of Life” and “Hugo”), but it is still a charming, beautifully made tribute to the origins of the medium.
“The Artist,” written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius (that’s going to be fun to type over and over again), chronicles George Valentin (Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin), a dashing, impossibly charismatic star of the silent screen. Modeled after real-life stars of the era like Douglas Fairbanks, Valentin’s films are the biggest thing going in 1927, and audiences swoon for the larger-than-life heroics he effortlessly portrays on screen, along with his mile-wide smile and his Jack Russell terrier sidekick (the dog, named Uggie, does some of the most astonishing tricks I’ve ever seen in a movie). His boisterous producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) sees him as the ultimate meal-ticket, and his long-suffering wife (Penelope Ann Miller) is frustrated by his braggadocio and that he cares more about his career than he does her, especially when adoring fan and wannabe actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) catches his eye when she is at the studio for an audition. Their brief encounter becomes front-page fodder, and Valentin, taken by her beautiful and wonderfully expressive face, thinks she has the potential to become a star; which turns out to be a mixed blessing because a new trend in film is on the horizon.
Sound has invaded movies, and the days of only having an orchestral accompaniment and the facial expressions of the actors on-screen are about to fall by the wayside. Valentin refuses to believe that “talkies” will ever become the status quo. Movies are an escape from reality, so why would you pay to watch people talk on a giant screen? George decides that if the studio won’t produce anymore of his movies, then he will make them himself.
But Peppy is moving in the other direction. She starts out as an extra and chorus girl in Valentin’s films, and works her way up the Hollywood ladder until she gets her own starring role in the talkie “Beauty Spot,” named for the penciled-in facial blemish (ironically suggested by Valentin) that made her stand out from the countless other female ingenues dying for stardom. Peppy becomes America’s Sweetheart, and Valentin instantly becomes a relic of an era gone by.
That era, which defines the story and the film itself, is beautifully rendered. Shot in the old 4:3 full-screen format in gorgeous black and white and an energetic, beautiful score, Hazanavicius creates a stylish, energetic world that silent films thrived off of. He also breaks out of the silence for some supremely clever implementations of sound (I won’t say what they are), trying to keep the movie from being too nostalgic and reverent. The title cards are few and far between, showing that Hazanavicius is a gifted visual storyteller and that he trusts his audience to follow with the story the old-fashioned way. It helps that Dujardin and Bejo are up to the challenge of giving silent performances. As Norma Desmond said in “Sunset Boulevard,” “we had faces then.” Without audible dialogue, you have to do more physical acting, relying on body language and facial expressions. Dujardin, with his enormous grin and athletic grace and Bejo’s enormous eyes and lithe body, have the faces, and their performances are more charismatic and interesting as a result given the degree of difficulty. Dujardin has a commanding presence; Valentin definitely has the persona of a movie star as a result, but Dujardin is capable of the emotional heavy-lifting as well, when George falls from grace. Bejo’s large, expressive eyes are able to capture a variety of emotions as well.
If the film’s story sounds familiar to you, that’s because it has been told countless times in countless iterations (“Singin’ In the Rain,” “A Star is Born”) and that is part of the film’s problem; it never rises above being a charming exercise in silent film. This movie, strangely enough, reminded me of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” another film with exhilarating, virtuoso technique that was lessened by a cliched, hackneyed story. You can set your watch to the development of “The Artist’s” plot. Peppy rises in fame, George loses it until he hits rock bottom and the two reunite to find a solution. Because the story is so by-the-numbers, the film is at somewhat of a distance; it feels like we’re watching this film, as beautifully rendered as it is, behind a wall of glass; it’s emotional impact is dulled, which is disappointing because the best silent films, such as Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” and Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” had a wellspring of emotional power because the impact of the stories were not cluttered by expository dialogue. A great film like Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” was able to bring the power of silent film to life with the use of modern technology, thus bridging the gap between cinema’s past and present. “The Artist” is content with presenting a recreation of silent film as a self-contained entity.
Despite these drawbacks, “The Artist” is definitely worth checking out for the exceptional performances and the vivid recreation of the era by Hazanavicius, who is a major talent. Just don’t expect the great movie that was showered with awards due to Harvey Weinstein’s string-pulling. This may sound like a strange criticism for a silent film, but “The Artist” would’ve been better if it had something more interesting to say.