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The Artist...a Robwrite Review
THE ARTIST (4.5 stars out of 5)
When was the last time anyone made a silent film? It was probably Mel Brooks' Silent Movie (1976). It's an oddity these days, to say the least, but this film has more to offer than just a gimmick. There will be many people who will not want to see this film because it is silent, and that's a pity, because they're missing what may be the best film of the year. The Artist is a work of art.
Written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, this film is the second ode to the silent era this year--Hugo was another tribute to the pre-talkie days--and it covers a similar theme of a cinema personality being left behind in the march of time. This film is a lively comedy, with excellent performances, despite almost no words being said.
The film begins in the late twenties, during the tail-end of the Silent Film Era and focuses on how the introduction of sound in films shook the industry to its core and altered the lives of many show business people. Not since the classic Singing in the Rain has a film so-well encapsulated the feel of both panic and excitement that overcame Hollywood when sound came along.
The story follows silent film star George Valentin (Played by French star Jean Dujardin); a sort of Douglas Fairbanks-like action star who rules the box office and revels in his success. George is forever accompanied by his faithful terrier Jack (Played by a dog named Uggie.) George prefers his public and his dog to his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) who he has grown distant from.
When George has a chance-meeting with a struggling young actress named Peppy Miller (Played by Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo), she gets some unexpected press attention, which helps her start to get some film roles. When she auditions for a part in one of George's films, he insists she gets hired. Their brief scenes together lead to flirtations that Peppy would love to take a step further but married George is reluctant, despite how unhappy his marriage is. He is attracted to Peppy but won't take that final leap into infidelity. (But he is tempted.) However, his preferential treatment of her gives her career a boost, and starts Peppy on the road to success.
Then sound comes along in 1927 and the whole industry knows that it is the future, except for a few stubborn hold-outs, like George. When the studio he works for begins the transition to sound, George spitefully quits and decides to fund his own independent film. Meanwhile, Peppy is on a career roll, and is getting larger-and-larger parts in her films. We see her screen billing move higher up in the cast list with every film until she gets star billing.
While Peppy is becoming the new darling of sound films, George loses his shirt with his disastrous silent opus, simultaneously losing everything else in the stock market crash of '29. He finds himself a fading, forgotten man, while his former protege is the queen of Hollywood. Still unable to let go of his pride, he begins to sink into self-destructive behavior.
The Artist is clever in many ways. It makes entertaining use of occasional, unexpected sound effects, such as in a very funny dream sequence. The motif of speaking--or rather, of not speaking--is used on different levels. When George's ignored wife asks him why he won't speak, she is talking about their marriage, but it is a metaphor for his career. Why is he so stubborn about not speaking in movies if it will save his career?
Director Michel Hazanavicius uses imagery very well. Close-ups of people's mouths when they're talking illustrates George's discomfort with sound. At one point, when fallen star George is walking alone down the street, in the background we see a theater marquee that reads "the Lonely star". In another scene, even his shadow seems to walk out on him.
Stars Dujardin and Bejo are both likable and they have a good on-screen chemistry. The movie has a strong supporting cast. Aside from Penelope Ann Miller, we have John Goodman as the head of the studio; James Cromwell as George's loyal manservant; and Malcolm McDowell as a film extra.
This film is unique, clever and funny. It's also a nice tribute to an era of film that many people don't appreciate in modern times. Don't let the fact that the film is silent dissuade you from going to see it. This silent film deserves positive word-of-mouth.