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"The Artist" Shines As A Silent Film Tribute
In this contemporary age of cinema full of remakes and sequels, it’s refreshing that a special film comes along to remind us of the joy we experience by going to the movies. The French-based film “The Artist” is an outstanding, entertaining, and remarkably satisfying tribute to Hollywood’s silent era of film. The film is not only homage to that bygone era but it is full on black & white silent film that modern audiences are not accustomed to, especially in this climate of bloated 3-D effects.
Beginning in 1927, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a box-office star. He can evoke laughter, suspense, and melodrama from the audience without uttering a word. After the world premier of Valentin’s latest action drama “A Russian Affair,” he steps outside to his adoring fans, signing autographs and getting his picture taken by the press. A particular fan named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) drops her purse and accidentally bumps into Valentin, whereby he graciously poses with her as she lands a kiss on his cheek. The press plasters the photo on the front page of Variety and Miller has become the unknown “it-girl” around Hollywood. While she revels in this temporary notoriety, Miller is actually an aspiring actress, auditioning to be an extra in any movie that will hire her. Valentin on the other hand returns to his mansion home to his unloving wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and his frequent on-screen canine companion Jack (Uggie, a Jack Russell Terrier). The following day, Miller captures the attention of a casting director to appear as a backup dancer in Valentin’s next film. Seen dancing backstage, Valentin is instantly impressed and convinces Kinograph Studios producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) to hire her for a part. The two actors have a brief scene together which happens to have multiple takes as the two end up cracking up with one another while filming. By the end of production, the two move on to separate career paths.
The year 1927 saw the release of “The Jazz Singer,” a revolutionary film that introduced sound to motion pictures, then dubbed “talkies.” Soon, audiences were demanding sound in their films and silent films began a steady decline. By 1929, Valentin was still churning out silent films for Kinograph Studios until he learned they were abandoning silent film productions in favor of focusing solely on talkies. Dismissing it as a fad and unwilling to adapt to the new technology, Valentin quits the studio with the intention of making his own silent film production. He stakes his personal wealth to fund the production, which goes over-long and over budget. All the while, Peppy Miller gradually climbs the Hollywood ladder in the early days of talkies, going from back-up dancer to small roles, to eventually becoming the star in big productions and her face plastered on movie magazines. Upon the completion of Valentin’s passion project in October of 1929, he learns that it will be opening on the same day as Miller’s highly anticipated film. Days later, the great Stock Market Crash that would cripple the country has also turned Valentin broke and the face of an obsolete medium.
While Miller is enjoying success, Valentin spends his days in the bars and his tiny apartment, separated from his wife but still with Jack the dog and his loyal valet Clifton (James Cromwell). Valentin and Miller cross paths at a Hollywood restaurant while the press is interviewing Miller as Valentin eavesdrops. Miller goes on about her embrace of talkies and the joys of being in the limelight until Valentin confronts her and reminds her that she wouldn’t be where she is without him. Valentin undergoes severe depression, auctioning off all of his film memorabilia just to pay for the next whiskey bottle. Valentin hits rock bottom by drunkenly setting fire to the film reels that made him famous. As he’s rescued from the fire from his home, he clutches the one thing that reminded him of happiness: the film reel that was shot with him and Miller’s only screen appearance together. Miller on the other hand still holds her encounter with Valentin in her heart and strives to revive his career in the new era of film.
French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius had wanted to direct a silent film for years since many of his influences started out in silent film. It wasn’t until the financial success with his 2006 spy film “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” that he gained support from film producers. Believing silent melodramas to be the most appealing, he crafted a story about the fall from grace of a Hollywood star and cast previous collaborator Dujardin to portray the charming Valentin as well as his actress wife Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller. While the film features many recognizable American actors, the two unfamiliar French leads are absolutely charming. Dujardin’s presence is outstanding as if he’s a true silent film star transported through time to the modern era. Bejo is cute as a button as the likable Peppy Miller. Supporting actors like Goodman, Cromwell, and even Uggie the dog add to the appeal of vintage Hollywood.
Hazanavicius’s dedication to the silent film era is both sweet and authentic. The film was shot 1.33:1 screen ratio commonly used in the silent film era in color but corrected to black & white in postproduction. Presented without too many inter-titles and its soundtrack accompanied by the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra, “The Artist” is an authentic tribute to the silent film era.