Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Silent Contender: The Artist

Talking pictures were a truly Schumpeterian phenomenon for Hollywood. As any film lover knows from Singin’ in the Rain, some silent movie stars could weather the creative destruction wrought by the transition to sound, whereas some could not. Matinee idol George Valentin was one of those who could not “talk.” Fittingly, his story is a told silently (or nearly so) in The Artist (trailer here), Michel Hazanavicius’s glorious black-and-white homage to the golden age of Hollywood, which opens this Friday in New York.

It is 1927. George Valentin is at the height of his popularity as a Douglas Fairbanks style swashbuckler. He has just fought the red menace as an agent of free Georgia in The Russian Affair. However, studio mogul Al Zimmer has something disturbing to show him: synchronized sound. Dismissing the future, Valentin returns to work on his next picture, which will be only remembered as the brief screen debut of future superstar Peppy Miller. Obviously thrilled to have any screen time, Miller is particularly excited to share a scene with her favorite star, George Valentin.

When talkies become the standard, Miller’s career takes off like a rocket with frothy romantic comedies. Meanwhile, Valentin’s attempt to finance his own silent comeback vehicle proves disastrous. Yet, Miller’s feelings for yesterday’s leading man remain unchanged.

Hazanavicius consciously draws from dozens of classic films (both pre- and post-Jazz Singer), as well as numerous real larger-than-life Hollywood figures. What follows incorporates elements of A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard, and Greta Garbo’s relationship with John Gilbert. (Sadly, many modern movie-goers will miss the allusions, but perhaps the notion of a film without diegetic sound might be a brand new novelty item for them.)

As the product of many artists’ work, the film is a visual splendor, beginning with Guillaume Schiffman’s lush and moody black-and-white cinematography (shot in color, but printed in fabulous shades of gray, as per today’s standard practice), which makes the elegant sets and costumes softly glow like a Cecil Beaton portrait. Still, it is the depth of Hazanavicius’s screenplay that really distinguishes The Artist.

Not merely a series of winks at TCM watchers, the film is quite a touching love story, completely free of irony. On the two occasions it breaks format, sound is used in creative ways that cleverly advance the film. Periodically, Hazanavicius also appears to indulge in a witty in-joke, yet in each case, their unexpected dramatic logic catches us by surprise. Likewise, while his inter-titles have a simplicity befitting the period, they convey a surprising richness of meaning.

Familiar to American audiences from Hazanavicius’s French OSS 117 spy spoofs, Jean Dujardin gives another very physical performance here, but the complexity and pathos of his Valentin is in a whole different league. Indeed, it is a tricky proposition to play a mugging actor without ever mugging for the camera, yet he is never overly broad or over the top, keeping the faded movie star acutely human throughout. He also develops some endearing romantic chemistry with Bérénice Bejo as Miller.

Frankly, the Argentine-French Bejo is about the only person working in film today who can approximate the glamorous look of Hollywood in its heyday (yes, this definitely includes Michelle Williams). Exquisite and vulnerable, she deserves a bit of award attention along with Dujardin, the best actor winner at this year’s Cannes. In contrast, the American supporting cast does not have much to do, but John Goodman’s cigar-chomping shtick works perfectly for Zimmer, even without sound.

After winning over all but the most jaded critics at this year’s New York Film Festival, The Artist has emerged as a major Oscar contender. Frankly, this is the film for the Weinsteins to put their chips on, not the Marilyn story or Madonna’s vanity project. It is a beautifully rendered valentine to movie-making, featuring two wildly charismatic romantic leads. Highly recommended, The Artist opens this Friday (11/25) in New York at the Paris Theater and Angelika Film Center.