Cannes 2011 Review – The Artist

So we are in the aughts, and Michel Hazanavicius decides to do a silent film in black and white. What is your gut reaction? The guy is nuts, right? Silent films haven’t worked for, what, 80 years? After the first ‘talkies’ were released, the silent film era was over, done, never heard of again. Until now, that is. What Hazanavicius has created with The Artist is pure, unadulterated movie magic. In a competition that had been filled so far with girls letting themselves be manhandled while asleep, mass murdering teenagers driving their mothers crazy, and not one but two films with pedophilia as an important ingredient, The Artist graced the middle Sunday of the fest with simply a ton of fun. I feel I can write about it for hours, and in the end the only important words will be: go see this film and enjoy the hell out of it.

But I have to fill some web space, so allow me to gush a bit. Not only did the director make a silent black-and-white film, he also made it about silent black-and-white film, and more specifically the end of the silent era and the advent of ‘talking movies.’ George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of his generation’s biggest stars. One day, by chance, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) falls almost literally into his arms. Peppy dreams of being a movie star, and with the help of George (who develops a liking for the girl from the start) she manages to land a small part as an extra. Her star soon rises, and all is well, until director Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shows George the future: movies with sound. The actor dismisses the idea immediately. Who would want to hear the actors speak? Ridiculous! We all know our movie history, so while Valentin’s self-directed and produced film fails, the ‘talkies’ become an overnight success. The public embraces the first big movie star of the talking era: Peppy Miller. While her star rises and rises, that of George Valentin slowly dies out. His wife (Penelope Ann Miller) leaves him, he is forced to fire his driver (James Cromwell), and ends up having to sell all of his possessions. The film follows the path of classical love stories of the era, however, so it should surprise nobody that we are bound for a happy ending, although not until George hits rock bottom (a particularly funny moment in a film filled with them).

The way the film follows the history of the era it is portraying, while also developing the story in the same manner as the films it pays homage to, is just one example of all the thought and attention to detail that went into making it. Rife with references to classics from the early years of film, The Artist is artful without becoming a straight copy in every aspect of the silent films of yore. The actors, for instance, don’t do much of the ‘mugging’ that silent era actors in the film are accused of (and in reality often did, of course, quite by necessity). This saves it from becoming too much of a pastiche, as often the actors will just play their parts as if in a contemporary film. The mise-en-scène is also exquisite. There is a scene on the stairs of Kinograph Studios so intricate in its choreography that it recalls similar scenes in Murnau’s Sunrise (it is not as good, but that was the first one that popped into mind). Hazanavicius also cleverly puts the film in English, so to speak, with the two leads being portrayed by French actors. Obviously this does not matter in a silent film, but serves to underscore the importance of an actor’s voice (or the absence thereof), particularly when Dujardin’s only audible line at the end reveals a thick French accent.

It is not the only sound heard during the film. In a very well-conceived scene, Jean Dujardin’s character has a nightmare where sound can be heard, except for his voice. For an actor, this would be one of his greatest fears, but the same goes for a silent actor who is afraid his ‘voice’ (his acting) will not be heard again when a new generation of (talking) actors take over. And then of course there is the score. Always such an important factor in the silent era, and just as important here. Composer Ludovic Bource shows he knew exactly what was needed. The music appropriately drives the action on screen where necessary, underlining drama and comedy with thick lines.

In Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius has found two actors with exactly the screen presence asked for. Their performances jump off the screen, and the two have an undeniable chemistry. Dujardin, with his flexible face and excellent body control, is perfect as the charming rascal movie star, and Bejo’s radiant smile works wonders as both aspiring actress and accomplished star. In the supporting cast, John Goodman and Missi Pyle show they could have lit up the screen a century ago. And a minor star that should not be forgotten is Valentin’s little pet terrier, which often provides the biggest laughs.

I have already read some Oscar talk here and there, and with the Weinstein name behind it and the film being such an irresistible crowd-pleaser, I would not rule out several nominations. Sit back and let that thought sink in: a black-and-white silent film could garner Oscar nominations in 2012. And it would fully deserve them, because what Hazanavicius and crew have done is create a masterpiece, a film that goes against the grain, but comes out winning you over nevertheless. Really: go see this film and enjoy the hell out of it. You’ll leave the theatre with a big smile on your face, wondering why we ever had the idea to make actors talk.