Sunday, January 29, 2012

Artistic License

Beyond the inevitable Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton clips, I cannot recollect ever having seen a silent film. So Michael Hazanavicius/s new film The Artist may be a first for me.

 It certainly feels like something new. It's really a film about silent film, a story set amid, and deeply enmeshed with, the overthrow of the silent film by the rapid rise of the talkie in the late '20s. The French actor Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a god of the silver screen and the mega celebrity of his time. We meet him in 1927 at he peak of his fame, as he mugs and hams his way across the screen and even through his live promotional appearances--presumably because this is what was deemed necessary to tell a story on a screen--any screen--without sound. At one of these promotional appearances a young woman stumbles into the scene, and Valentin's hamming at the mishap gets a similar and well-received response from the woman and voilà!: star is born. The woman, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be the director's wife), goes on to make the transition a couple years later to talkies, while Valentin, despite his being her "discoverer" and mentor, finds his days pretty much over. This is the broad outline over which our story unfolds. (One of the things that blurs without spoken dialog is nationality: I love that both actors are French--Bejo is French / Argentine--but the subject and the setting convinces you that they're American.)

What's especially lovely about Hazanavicius's film, apart from its gorgeous black and white picture, is the chance it affords us to reflect on how stories are told and how film communication works. The silent film represents the birth of film, our first stab at this storytelling technology. But people haven't changed in the scant 90 years since then, even if tastes and conventions surely have. The death of the silent film was swift and total. But lots of techniques and styles have come and gone over the years, yet a good film is still a good film. The story must be told through facial expression and setting and props and the occasional dialog card--though not many of these. Obviously, a modern spy thriller like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy could never be told this way; so the medium is not suited to any and every genre of story. But for an intimate story between two people, a silent film lets us immerse in the 85% of communication that's not verbal. The emotional content of George and Peppy's story is pretty garden variety, especially to a present-day audience, but it says something that it's still a compelling story without sound. (Well, there IS sound in the form of an orchestral score, which is as indispensable for a silent film as it is for a modern one.)

Both our leads here are beautiful to look at and have expressive faces (and are both excellent dancers!). Dujardin especially looks exactly like you'd expect a dashing, swashbuckling film star of the 1920s to look with a mischievous but radiant smile and a pencil mustache. They are joined by a fine cast which includes some heavy hitters: John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell. John Goodman especially seems made for silent films; he excels at the larger-than-life gesture that this world requires.

Special mention must be made for Valentin's costar in all his silent films, and his companion in life, a little Jack Russell terrier named Jack (played by rising canine superstar Uggie). Jack is in almost every scene, and brings much of the film's comedy relief; and he actually carries a fair bit of the story's emotional content as well. I can't help chewing on this a bit, since animals are always silent film stars, as it were, and they're also a pretty surefire way to make an emotional connection. I can't help wondering if this is a calculated mechanism by Hazanavicius to keep us engaged emotionally when we might otherwise be kept at arm's length by the antiquity of this style of storytelling.

But however it works, it works. This is a one-off, a film in its own category. It's not a trend that's likely to catch on, and there's no place for a sequel or prequel. But as a snapshot of a particular moment in history and as a moving story of two human beings caught up in that moment, this is a great achievement and a wonderful entertainment.

Grade: A

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