‘The Artist’ paints movie magic
In the late 1920s, talkies started taking the silver screen by
storm – audible thunder included.
Studios and producers felt the silent film was a dying – if not already dead – art.
But Charlie Chaplin wouldn’t have it. He self-financed a beautiful, emotional and outright hilarious cinematic gem, “City Lights,” released in 1931 and appropriately hailed as one of his best.
It was so well-received, thanks much to Chaplin’s own self-promotion, that the public enjoyed yet another silent Chaplin classic, “Modern Times,” five years later. His first talkie, “The Great Dictator,” didn’t hit screens until 1940 – 13 years after the first full-length feature “sound film,” Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer.”
Eighty-four years since Al Jolson sang in “The Jazz Singer,” this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “The Artist,” proves that silent film is still a viable and effective art form.
Lovingly filmed by French director Michel Hazanavicius (“OSS 117”), “The Artist” – steeped in technique and style from a bygone era – is a timeless work of art.
Seeing it in a cinema feels like stepping back in time, minus the cigarette smoke and jagged wall of hats blocking the view.
Yet for all its nostalgia, many of “The Artist’s” themes can be found in modern cinema. Newcomers to 1942’s “Casablanca” often think it clichéd after hearing its famous lines that have been circulating in movie vernacular for some 70 years, but those lines had to start somewhere, and they’re now considered clichéd for a reason – they were good.
In emulating the past, “The Artist” dares to be new. It takes the classic Hollywood romantic comedy and delivers it to a modern audience, but in old-time trappings.
Jean Dujardin (“The Clink of Life”) is George Valentin, 1927 Hollywood’s top movie star who’s never been out of the spotlight. A winning smile, a cute and exceptionally clever dog and a bevy of beauties at his beck and call make his a sweet life.
But his married life at home is interrupted by a chance encounter with aspiring starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, “A Knight’s Tale”) in a scene that (silently) screams “Chaplin.”
“Accidentally” stumbling onto the red carpet as George leaves a premiere, Peppy finds herself right beside him. As the photographers ready their cameras, she impulsively plants a wet one on his cheek, which, of course, makes all the big papers, much to the chagrin of George’s wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller, “Carlito’s Way”).
George charmingly laughs it off, but it’s not the last he’ll see of Peppy, whose sudden spot in the limelight earns her a small role in his latest film.
One role leads to another, and soon her star is rising, appearing in larger roles in other films, just as talkies are becoming the, uh, talk of the town. Furthermore, George is finding himself increasingly enamored with the young starlet.
But when he visits the studio one day, he notices something has changed. The executives are focusing solely on sound films, and George’s producer (John Goodman, “The Big Lebowski”) regretfully informs him that silent films – along with silent actors – are relics of the past. They’re after new blood now, talent like Peppy Miller and other rising stars.
Sure enough, Peppy lands a starring role in a talkie, but George is hellbent on proving that silent film isn’t dead. Like Chaplin and “City Lights,” George attempts to finance his own film. Unlike Chaplin, he arrogantly relies on his star power alone, hoping to draw back his once adoring audience, but to catastrophic effect.
“The Artist” follows George’s rise and fall, even delving into darker territory that makes an audience question whether he’ll rise again.
It’s a celebration of film, proving that even silent features carry the depth and pathos sadly absent from most modern releases.
As far as presentation goes, Hazanavicius hits the nail on the head. “The Artist” is pure immersion, right down to its award-winning jaunty soundtrack from Ludovic Bource (“Here to Stay”), and its cast members fit their roles to a tee. Even though it’s a modern cast, Guillaume Schiffman’s (“OSS 117”) cinematography is so effective, you’ll think they were actors from yesteryear.
Dujardin is winning (literally, taking home the Oscar for Best Actor) as George, while Bejo charms as Peppy. Other standouts include James Cromwell (“Babe”) as George’s loyal chauffeur and Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”) in a cameo. And, of course, there’s Uggie the dog, George’s stalwart and precocious canine companion.
Altogether, “The Artist” is one of those stories that happens “only in the movies,” and appropriately so – it’s movie magic, pure and simple.
“The Artist,” rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.