Be prepared to be surprised and delighted
Published: December 21, 2011
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Opens Dec. 23 at the Charles theatre
The Weinstein Co. is quite proud of French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’ charming black-and-white feature The Artist. Thanks to the distributors’ warm glow over it as award season nears, I was fortunate to see it before its admittedly gimmicky hook became too widely known and whittled down to a backlash-baiting reference point: “That silent movie,” or something like that.
The Artist has the ability to surprise and delight greatly those who aren’t going in crossing their arms and daring it to. It stars Jean Dujardin as silent-movie star George Valentin, whose pencil moustache and expressive stoicism recall Douglas Fairbanks. Things seem to be going well enough for Valentin, even though two major forces as yet unknown to him are about to collide and spell his doom: the popularization of talkies and the effervescence of a bright, ambitious starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).
She’s an extra on one of his films, and her captivating pixieness (thrown down in a series of old-school set-piece businesses such as practicing her dance steps so Valentin can only see her legs) and right-place-right-time planning land her on the tip of everyone’s tongue. For a short while, Valentin has her all to himself; they flirt and banter and role play some light hero/ingénue sensuality. Things get serious, however, when Valentin’s longtime producer (John Goodman) decides to do away with silents altogether and enlists Peppy as one of his stable talkie future-stars.
As wonderfully slight and a bit jarring as this first act is, the second act devotes itself more to being a tribute factory, with mixed results. Hazanavicius nods to A Star Is Born, Fritz Lang’s Spies, Singing in the Rain, Citizen Kane, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and, least successfully in a subplot devoted to Valentin’s self-immolation, Sunset Boulevard. It can be a dizzying treat for a cinephile, but it does nothing for the story or the run-time lifespan of its gimmick.
Still, Hazanavicius and, especially, Dujardin deserve great credit for proving, as WALL-E did, that storytelling is still about human emotion and expression. The Artist is at turns funny, heartbreaking, thrilling, and a visual marvel, with only the aid of Ludovic Bource’s sublime score to guide our reactions. The Artist is art that stands on its own, a reflective surface of some of cinema’s best ideas.