Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in the sparkling silent film The Artist

It’s a week of movies playing on our nostalgia for the past. Martin Scorsese mined his enthusiasm for the pioneers of early cinema in Hugo while Disney dusted off the Muppets in the hope of introducing them to an entirely new generation. With The Artist, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius reteams with Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, his co-stars from the OSS 117 spy spoofs, to follow Scorsese back to the silent past with an homage that is itself beautifully black and white and silent. The difference is that Hazanavicius’ interests lie strictly with the people in front of the camera and to that end he’s got the perfect cast. The Artist is not especially deep, but thanks in large part to the talent and charm of its leads, it is exuberantly entertaining.

Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film idol at the peak of his powers in the late 20s. Bejo plays Peppy Miller, a new girl rising through the ranks of Hollywood. Sparks fly when their paths cross, but he’s married to Penelope Ann Miller and his fortunes are about to take a turn for the worse when the movies start talking. While she embraces the talkies and becomes a superstar in her own right, he throws all of his own money at one last silent film which nobody wants to see. They are two stars whose trajectories have them moving in opposite directions.

The Artist explores much of the same territory as Singin’ in the Rain, though with a much less satiric and more straight-forward tack. The talkies were a rapid revolution in Hollywood and few of the former era’s stars were able to make the transition, no matter how brightly they sparkled in their heyday. While the Gene Kelly musical puts an optimistic gloss on the period, The Artist isn’t afraid to dig down into the sadness and the tragedy of people left behind as the world moves forward. It gets genuinely dark and surprisingly dramatic as George bottoms out and Peppy seems unable to do anything about it.

While this drama gives The Artist its soul, its heart comes from its humor and from its affection for a time when movies were king and the people who starred in them were gods. The movie is at its best when it is being warm and funny. To that end, Hazanavicius relies mightily on his star Dujardin. With his guileless, expressive face, the Frenchman is the perfect actor for silent pictures. It’s as though his eyebrows and his smile are attached to different motors in his brain. One of them will respond first to something amusing or entertaining happening on screen, and then the other will follow as his whole face lights up in laughter or amazement.

Though she doesn’t really look like a silent screen star, Bejo is undeniably beautiful and she more than holds her own opposite the incandescent Dujardin. They’re a terrific pair, perhaps in part from having worked together at least twice in the past, and they have a natural rapport and a convincing chemistry. The scenes where they dance are magic.

At the same time, Dujardin and Bejo really aren’t doing anything more than they did so well in the OSS 117 movies, just in a less silly and more high-toned film. While it’s more serious-minded, I’m not sure it’s any deeper or necessarily better. While it’s an affectionate recreation of a silent film, it never entirely transcends the best of them. On the other hand, it is superbly charming and entertaining and maybe that’s enough. While it doesn’t revolutionize cinema, The Artist is a beautifully glittering recollection if its vibrant past.

★★★★☆ 

8 Responses to “The Artist (2011)”

  1. I haven’t seen this film yet, but I continue to have a hunch that it can be a modest hit with American audiences — as long as it can overcome the silent/b&w/foreign thing. I imagine this would depend on viewer buzz.

  2. Weinstein seems to be marketing it right, but I don’t know. It will appeal to older members of the Academy, but I’m not sure about younger non-movie-obsessed folks. If it gets some significant Oscar love, I can picture it finding a wider audience, but without that it’s going to be an uphill climb and Harvey’s financial backers might convince him to cut his losses and just drop it.

  3. I will be seing the film tonight. Your still stellar and enthusiastic four-star assessment seems to actually be a bit under most of the raves that have been aimed at it, but as always the proof will be the pudding.

    The subject of this film, and it’s inherent style are right up my propverbial alley, so I could well be coming back here with a rave tomorrow. But I appreciate the comparative scrutiny here.

  4. I’m of two minds as to how you’ll respond Sam. On one hand, your affection for silent films kind of makes it a shoe-in for your enthusiasm, but on the other hand, your knowledge of same might leave you feeling wanting. This is a nice homage through and through, but in the end for me that’s really all it is. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I don’t see it sticking with me.

  5. Well as it turns out Craig, your latter speculation is the one that seems applicable here. I like the film as much as you do (with a ditto 4 star rating) and I enjoyed Dujardin’s work enormously, but it was all surface glitz and audio bombast, that admitted wore you down as much as it exhilarated you.

    I was moved by it, but was also exaserbated, and filled with thoughts of what it could have been. But a unique film for sure in so many ways.

  6. It’s kind of a silent movie for people who haven’t seen a lot of silent movies, isn’t it?

    Still. It was fun and well done. I’m a little surprised though by some of the higher praise it’s gotten.

  7. “It’s kind of a silent movie for people who haven’t seen a lot of silent movies, isn’t it?”

    Yes it is absolutely, and yes it is most certainly fun and well-done. Hence the same **** rating that you gave it.

  8. I’m pretty much on the same page as you and Sam, Craig. Truth be told, much as I like Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, I was disappointed that the filmmakers of The Artist would rely on borrowed music for the centerpiece sequence of the film (the one culminating in the gun).

    Dujardin indeed is quite compelling, and film is quite good. But I’m a bit surprised by buzz touting its Oscar Best Picture frontrunner status.

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