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The Artist Movie Essay

While the movie industry abandoned black-and-white silent films 80 years ago, the spirit is of the past is back with writer/director Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, a true crowd-pleaser that evokes the charm of old Hollywood.

Set in the late 1920s, the story centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a famous movie star who is truly on top of the world. His movies are some of the biggest in Hollywood and he is constantly surrounded by fans who heap praise upon him. One day, by pure chance, he meets a young background actor named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), with whom he has an instant connection. What he doesn’t know is that their careers about to take completely opposite trajectories. Ignoring the trades and warnings from a powerful producer (John Goodman) that talkies are becoming the big thing, George refuses to change up his act, and watches his career sink lower and lower as Peppy rides the talkie wave and gets bigger and bigger.

Much like actors in early films, star Jean Dujardin must over-emote in order to compensate for his inability to express himself verbally. But in doing so, he puts on a marvelous performance. A challenging role, to say the least, Dujardin never pushes himself so far that it becomes hammy and we always know exactly how he feels and what’s going through his mind. What’s more, the French actor looks as though he’s been ripped straight out of the era, looking perfectly natural wearing a tailcoat tuxedo and sporting a pencil-thin mustache. He sells the drama, makes us laugh and is, in short, perfect as George Valentin.

The Artist presents George's life as the very kind of silent film he's trying to keep alive, allowing the audience to both re-discover the joys of silent film and fully understand George's plight. The character is so dead-set in his ways it would actually hurt the film to hear George speak, and The Artist allows the viewer to see George as though his entire life is a silent film, which is how he would actually prefer it. This is only reinforced by the fact that the first time we see the character is on screen and through the 1927 audience’s eyes. But he's so attached to his movie identity that his dog co-star is even with him in real life too performing little skits at the dinner table and acting like Lassie, rescuing George when he is in trouble (the dog’s performance is actually one of the film’s greatest highlights).

The silence is also used quite effectively in fun and creative ways. In a dream sequence early in the movie, George is stuck in a world filled with sound, but he himself cannot make any. In addition to foreshadowing his fate, the scene catches the audience by surprise, but isn’t disruptive or intrusive, just clever. Most importantly, the gimmick is used sparingly, which effectively makes each use of sound have more effect. When the element is reintroduced late in the film it manages to still feel fresh and impactful.

While the presentation and performances are terrific, The Aritst's derivative story prevents it from being a great film. The story of the silent film actor being pushed aside to make way for talkies is hardly new – one has to look no further than the 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Blvd.. As a result, the whole thing smells of Michel Hazanavicius first deciding that he wanted to make a silent film and then finding the simplest story to tell in that format. This reverse engineering sadly dampens the film and while you can still have fun and feel for the main character, it’s never able to reach the heights that audiences may expect from it.

Despite its flaws, The Artist really is a delightful film. A love letter to an age of cinema gone by, it aims to reflect and recapture the spirit of some of the earliest films and does succeed in that regard. The movie isn’t revolutionary and doesn’t aim to create a whole new wave of silent filmmaking, but it is a fun diversion.

7 / 10 stars

Rating:3.5/5

Reviewed By: Eric Eisenberg

Is it possible to forget that "The Artist" is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That's what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. At a sneak preview screening here, a few audience members actually walked out, saying they didn't like silent films. I was reminded of the time a reader called me to ask about an Ingmar Bergman film. "I think it's the best film of the year," I said. "Oh," she said, "that doesn't sound like anything we'd like to see."

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Here is one of the most entertaining films in many a moon, a film that charms because of its story, its performances and because of the sly way it plays with being silent and black and white. "The Artist" knows you're aware it's silent and kids you about it. Not that it's entirely silent, of course; like all silent films were, it's accompanied by music. You know — like in a regular movie when nobody's talking?

One of its inspirations was probably "Singin' in the Rain," a classic about a silent actress whose squeaky voice didn't work in talkies and about the perky little unknown actress who made it big because hers did. In that film, the heroine (Debbie Reynolds) fell in love with an egomaniacal silent star — but a nice one, you know? Played by Gene Kelly in 1952 and by Jean Dujardin now, he has one of those dazzling smiles you suspect dazzles no one more than himself. Dujardin, who won best actor at Cannes 2011, looks like a cross between Kelly and Sean Connery, and has such a command of comic timing and body language that he might have been — well, a silent star.

Dujardin is George Valentin, who has a French accent that sounds just right in Hollywood silent films, if you see what I mean. The industry brushes him aside when the pictures start to speak, and he's left alone and forlorn in a shabby apartment with only his faithful dog, Uggie, for company.

At a crucial moment, he's loyally befriended by Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who when they first met, was a hopeful dancer and has now found great fame. The fans love her little beauty mark, which Valentin penciled in with love when she was a nobody.

As was often the case in those days, the cast of "The Artist" includes actors with many different native tongues, because what difference did it make? John Goodman makes a bombastic studio head, and such familiar faces as James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle and Ed Lauter turn up.

At 39, Jean Dujardin is well-known in France. I've seen him in a successful series of spoofs about OSS 117, a Gallic secret agent who mixes elements of 007 and Inspector Clouseau. He would indeed have made a great silent star. His face is almost too open and expressive for sound, except comedy. As Norma Desmond, the proud silent star in "Sunset Boulevard," hisses: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Dujardin's face serves perfectly for the purposes here. More than some silent actors, he can play subtle as well as broad, and that allows him to negotiate the hazards of some unbridled melodrama at the end. I felt a great affection for him.

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I've seen "The Artist" three times, and each time it was applauded, perhaps because the audience was surprised at itself for liking it so much. It's good for holiday time, speaking to all ages in a universal language. Silent films can weave a unique enchantment. During a good one, I fall into a reverie, an encompassing absorption that drops me out of time.

I also love black and white, which some people assume they don't like. For me, it's more stylized and less realistic than color, more dreamlike, more concerned with essences than details. Giving a speech once, I was asked by parents what to do about their kids who wouldn't watch B&W. "Do what Bergman's father did to punish him," I advised. "Put them in a dark closet and say you hope the mice don't run up their legs."

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