Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Artist

***included in Brian's Best and Worst of 2011***
Back in September, I stumbled across OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.  I had seen the DVD cover art before and curiosity finally got the better of me, so I watched it with little to no foreknowledge.  I was treated to a likable and extremely clever (but not as funny) French spoof of 1960s spy movies.  The cleverness of the story made me extremely curious to see more of the director, Michel Hazanavicius, and the star, Jean Dujardin.  As luck would have it, the most acclaimed film of 2011 happened to be The Artist, which paired the star and director once more.
...and the director's wife, who was also in OSS 117.  Nepotism leads to Oscar nominations.

In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a huge silent film star.  Everything he touches seems to turn to gold, and his skills seem to apply equally to romances, action/adventure flicks, and comedies.
George Valentin: Eastern Orthodox Hollywood icon
One day, while posing for pictures outside his most recent film premiere, George is accidentally bumped by a young lady in the crowd, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).  Being a suave celebrity, George opts not to punch her in the face, and instead laughs it off and poses for pictures with Peppy, to the delight of all.  Seriously, look at that crowd, they're acting like they're at a bachelorette party.
My personal favorite is the woman by his elbow
Peppy happens to be an aspiring actress that idolizes George.  She manages to get a role as an extra on one of George's movies, and the two show a lot of chemistry and sexual attraction. In fact, the two almost act upon that attraction, but the moment passed and so they went on with their lives.  Young Peppy started to work her way up in the movie business, while George took a slightly different approach.  When the head of the movie studio (John Goodman) shows George a prototype of a film with a vocal track, George scoffs at it, declaring it a toy.  From that point forward, George is fighting a losing battle against the idea of sound in film while Peppy --- being an up-and-comer --- wisely rides the "talkies" to fame and fortune.

I suppose there's a bit more to the story than the rise of one performer and the fall of another, but that's the plot in a nutshell.  If it sounds familiar to you, that's because it should; this basic premise has been used many times over.  What separates The Artist from, say, All About Eve is the choice to make this movie about a silent film actor into a silent film.  To be fair, it's not entirely silent; there are a handful of words spoken and some interesting sequences where sound was selectively added, but the movie on the whole plays like a classic silent movie (just with superior film stock).

The silent movie schtick may seem like a gimmick at first, but it loses that feel after watching Jean Dujardin on camera for a little while.  I don't know if he will ever be able to transform into a Hollywood star (his accent is pretty thick --- not a deal-breaker, but still...), but Dujardin was wonderful in The Artist.  I can't pinpoint exactly why I liked him so much without making it sound like a backhanded compliment, though.  Dujardin is able to act like the stereotype of a mediocre actor; he has expressive eyebrows and a giant smile, which he utilizes in most of his "on-camera" scenes in this film.  He also conveys some very realistic emotions quite subtly in other moments.  It was a well thought out performance that was executed nearly perfectly.
Bonus points for not being stereotypically movie drunk
Bérénice Bejo was likable as the blossoming star, Peppy, but her character wasn't all that deep.  She wanted to be a star, she achieved that goal, and she wanted to help her friend.  We don't actually have to care about her character very much at all --- we just have to understand what she represents to George Valentin.  I think that was a missed opportunity.  Still, she did have her moments; I really liked the playful scene where she pretended to be romanced by Valentin's coat.
How ugly do you have to be to require this much work?
John Goodman was, as always, a welcome addition to the cast.  His character was pretty simple, but Goodman has made a career out of making simple characters entertaining to watch.  I think James Cromwell was under-appreciated for his turn as the loyal manservant to Valentin; Cromwell often is cast as a harsh authority figure, and it was nice to see him playing such a sweet character.  I was a little surprised by how many recognizable Hollywood actors played small roles in The ArtistPenelope Ann Miller essentially just defaced George Valentin memorabilia whenever she was on camera, Missi Pyle was suitably obnoxious as a famous actress, Malcolm McDowell just sat in a scene, Ed Lauter showed up just long enough for his face to ring a bell, and Ken Davitian managed to not be involved in a penis-related gag for a change.  Perhaps the biggest scene-stealer in the film was Uggie, the dog.  The sequences with Uggie were certainly cute, and the animal is clearly very well-trained.  That said, it's a dog; get over it, America.

Dujardin's excellent acting certainly goes a long way toward making the whole silent-film-thing less of a gimmick and more of an interesting choice, but it is the direction of Michel Hazanavicius that truly makes The Artist and interesting film to watch.  There are very few directors currently working who are willing to make interesting choices while making a film.  Those choices don't necessarily have to work (Malick, I'm looking at you), but their films are usually made far more enjoyable when they do.  Hazanavicius took a high concept and managed to add a solid story and some excellent acting to it.  While I like the choice he made, I still think the story is a bit weak and uses the silence to help mask that problem.  On the other hand, Hazanavicius also used the silence to convey some not especially subtle, but still easily overlooked character moments.  I really liked that Penelope Ann Miller was wearing a different piece of jewelry in each of her scenes; the audience knows she's unhappy because she keeps marking up every picture of George she can find, but I thought that was a nice additional touch.  What I truly appreciated in the film was Hazanavicius' frame composition.  It pops up periodically throughout the movie, but the symbolism on the movie studio staircase after Valentin was fired was gorgeous.  The Artist is a movie that understands film style and uses it to convey ideas with images, instead of through exposition, and that was a bit of a treat for me.

The Artist is a very clever film that deserves accolades for daring to do things differently.  Are you going to like it?  Well...that's a tough call.  On the plus side, it is a huge change of pace from anything else that came out last year.  It is also well-acted and well-directed, so if you like examining cinematography or acting subtleties, this should be a good time for you.  On the other hand, it is still a silent movie, and that might make the film drag at times for the less snobby film fan.  It's certainly a cute movie, but it doesn't have a whole lot of depth; the best trait The Artist has is just how clever it is, but that might not be a strong enough selling point for everyone.

1 comment:

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