Updated Tue, Jan 24, 2012 4:42 pm
When was the last time a feature-length silent movie was released? One thinks of Mel Brooks' Silent Movie in 1976, and there is the work of Guy Maddin, but Maddin's films are more about using the silent style as a mode or surreal language in which to paint his own very personal, askew visions.
The Artist is a straightforward silent film, a comedy set in the same era as Singin' In the Rain, which is to say the end of an era. It has a score meant to invoke the effect of a live orchestra accompaniment. It's in black & white. It has intertitles. It begins in 1927, the year of the release of The Jazz Singer, and on the eve of revolution: the advent of sound. It features a delight of a performance by Jean Dujardin (brilliantly invoking Gene Kelly) as matinee idol George Valentin.
How expressive the faces had to be then. Dujardin shows how an actor could convey different characters just by varying the slant of an eyebrow: a shifty, mustachioed villain or a dashing swashbuckler.
The film adopts as its story that of A Star Is Born, the 1937 version of which had a star, Janet Gaynor (she of Murnau's rapturous Sunrise), who survived the transition from the silents to the talkies. Valentin can't make that leap (and it's not until the end that one of the main reasons why is revealed), and finds himself on the scrapheap of history. At the same time a young woman with dreams of being a star (Berenice Bejo) stumbles into the spotlight and enchants the country. Valentin becomes a bit of mentor for her. Her star rises as his descends.
I got such a kick out of Berenice Bejo as Peppy, the star who is born. You'd need just the right "it-girl" girl to nail this part, and Bejo is spot-on. In one sad, sweet scene Peppy performs a mime with Valentin's jacket on a hat-stand, putting her own arm through the sleeve so that the empty suit seems to carress her.
What's really disarming about the approach of director Michel Hazinavicius and his cast is that they've pulled this off without any trace--not even a hint--of irony. The Artist is affectionate. If this is meta--and it is--then it's meta of the sweetest kind.
The film gets many of its laughs from the antics of a cute little Jack Russell terrier, Valentin's companion and big screen co-star (the dog steals the show), and has the guts to play straight a scene where the little dog actually goes scampering off to find a policeman during a moment of crisis, barking at the shooing officer until he takes the hint. You can either become impatient and grumble that all of this would maybe be amusing if you were, say, 100 years old, or you can embrace it. I come down enthusiastically in the latter camp.
Penelope Ann Miller does a spot-on homage to Jean Hagan and her turn in Singin' in the Rain as an obtusely recalcitrant star being dragged into the talkie era: she even looks like Hagan. James Cromwell is fun as Valentin's loyal valet, John Goodman is a blustering producer, and Malcolm McDowell has a brief cameo where he really does embody the type who might have turned up on a Mack Sennet or Charlie Chaplin set.
While watching the film, I kept thinking of a class I took last year with the Filmspotting boys (Matty "Ballgame" Robinson and Adam Kempenaar), titled "Hollywood Reflected: Movies About Movies," in which we screened both Singin' in the Rain and the 1937 A Star is Born. It's as if the writers and director of The Artist were sitting in on the class.
The Artist shares many of the same themes: a girl and a dream, success, identity shifts, the business, the way Hollywood chews you up and spits you out. And there's the extra wrinkle that this is a French production, so we're getting Hollywood as reflected through a Gallic prism. But then the French have always reawakened Americans to their own film roots.
As we stand on the precipice of great technological changes in film in our own era, and as movies seek new boundaries to open up (or new gimmicks to exploit, it often seems to me), what else will be left on the scrapheap of history? If the appreciative audience with which a I saw The Artist is any indication, what's gone is never truly lost. Technological revolutions don't change anything fundamental: people in 2012 still go to the movies for the same reasons they did in 1927. In recent years I've seen audiences queue up to see the restored Metropolis, Fritz Lang's 1927 epic, and cheer at the end.
You could perhaps argue that movies got more adult, more complex and rich, as the years went on (though I wouldn't want to demarcate things too strictly: D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were certainly as emotionally and thematically complex as any modern film artists). And yet the important thing that movies do has never really changed. The Artist is set in a time when movies made people happy. And we find, watching a film like this, that they still do.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other music and film reviews at The Moving World.