Thursday, December 8, 2011

Silence is Golden: “The Artist”

“Give them what they want: love, and a bit with a dog.” – Shakespeare in Love

Have you ever enjoyed a movie so much that you leave with a silly little grin from ear to ear and a strong urge to hug everyone around you, not just your companions, on the way out of the theatre? I will sleep well tonight and wake up tomorrow looking like I had slept with a coat hanger in my mouth all night, thanks to Michel Hazanavicius’s film The Artist.

Daring in concept and execution, this film is in black and white, and silent all over. Yup, as in Charlie Chaplin films, complete with title cards to punctuate expository but necessary dialogue, a continuous musical score, and no dialogue. If this doesn’t interest you, please go defile yourself with that new Chipmunks sequel or watch Tom Cruise rappel off the world’s tallest building, because I don’t want you to read my blog.

A sensation at this year’s Cannes film festival, where it won the Best Actor prize, The Artist follows a seemingly played-out A Star is Born story template and turns it on its cheeky head. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, one of this year’s great acting finds) is a star in the silent era, vain and smug, but who has the world at his feet. A chance encounter with a young fan and aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s wife) leads to a yo-yo in their fortunes. Peppy earns a contract as a studio player and graduates from extra to chorus girl to featured player to romantic lead, while George dismisses the advent of the new “talkie” motion pictures, and banks his fortune on a project that finishes his career, his marriage and his fortune. Only his faithful dog (played by Uggie, the most expressive Jack Russell Terrier on any screen since Eddie on Frasier) and chauffeur (James Cromwell) remain loyal, even when times grow bleak. Peppy, however, silently plays a hand in helping her former benefactor George out of his gloom, even when things get progressively worse.

This could easily have been a gimmick and a trifle, a one-note gag and marketing concept that might have been better as a ten-minute short subject. Hazanivicius has other plans. He follows his lead into the depths of alcoholism and the last vestiges of stubborn pride that keep him wallowing in self-pity. Anyone who’s been unemployed for a long period of time will relate to George, particularly in this economy (this film, it should be noted, is not an analogy for the current economic crisis). Dujardin infuses George with ample humanity and warmth, just enough to keep us from tut-tutting him for his foolishness and refusal to diversify and embrace progress. “If that’s the future, you can have it!” George cackles when he sees his first talking feature, but by dismissing it out of hand, he was really hiding his insecurity at being unable to continue his career. We want him to realize not the error of his ways, but the irrationality of his stubbornness. We want him to succeed.

And to that end, I must mention The Artist’s other great acting gift, the magnificent Bejo as Peppy. Although the story is not told entirely from her point of view, it’s her sympathy and grace that allows us to realize just how much George helped her in her own career, and serves as our entry point into the story. Without her, we wouldn’t entirely care what happens to old George and dismiss him as a fading alcoholic. Her expressive eyes and effusive charm perfectly matches Dujardin’s doom and gloom, and they are matched stare for stare. It’s one of the very best pas de deux acts in cinema all year, and culminates in one of the very best cinematic finales in recent memory. The other great paso doble in this film is the constant call-and-answer exchanges between George and his dog. Why is it perfect? Because neither of them speaks, of course.

It should be noted that this film is not a conventional rags-to-riches story, nor is it a complete remake of the aforementioned Star is Born story template. It is instead a variation of that tried-and-true narrative arc, without the obvious payoffs that one comes to expect in conventional Hollywood fictional film. You will find no tagline-ready soundbites in this films (it’s silent, after all). There are no facile declarations of love that hide the pain and real work that go into relationships, and it should be noted, love is not presented as something vulgar that people mistakenly idealize.

The Artist celebrates the art of movie making. The love I mentioned in the beginning of this film may not be romantic love, but it’s about the joy of working in the art form, and the cinematic experience in general. It doesn’t aspire to earlier times in cinematic history or wallow in nostalgia: rather, The Artist looks to its forebears for inspiration and looks ahead to the great works to follow. It says so much without any dialogue at all, and that is a feat in and of itself.

The film arrives with a trunkload of prizes from various film festivals and critics’ groups. In addition to its prize at Cannes, it’s also won a European Film Award and was named Best Film at both the New YorkFilm Critics Circle and the Washington DC Area Film Critics groups. Expect this slice of cinematic heaven, one of the very best of the year, to be front-and-centre at the Academy Awards in February. This is the kind of film you can watch again and again, with people who may not speak the same language, but who will understand, and laugh, cry and applaud together. The Artist is pure cinematic magic.

Already open across Europe, LA and New York, The Artist enters wide release this Friday, December 9.