Believe it or not, “The Artist” is only the second silent film in cinematic history to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The first was “Wings” which itself was the first film to win this particular award. I figured there were several other silent films which took home this award, but I guess the Oscars came about as the movie business was quickly transitioning to what was once called “talkies” when these awards began.
Looking back at “The Artist,” I have to admit it was nice to see a filmmaker reach back to a time when the movie industry was in its infancy, just like what Martin Scorsese did with “Hugo.” But while “The Artist” does not quite reach the same level of greatness that “Hugo” did, it still proves to be a compelling motion picture with great performances, a powerful story, and it serves as a reminder of how great black and white can be for certain motion pictures.
The story told here is one which has been told a million times before. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star who sees his great career suddenly crash to the ground when sound is introduced into motion pictures. George initially resists this change, feeling that it is a fad which will pass by quickly before anyone knows it. Of course, we all know this is not going to be the case as change is in the air and there is no stopping it.
As George finds his career ruined by this advancement in film and technology, another actress he once befriended named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) embraces this technological change and sees her star rise to the heavens as a result. She has gotten great and truly genuine advice from George in how to make her mark as an actress, and she forever holds a special place in her heart for him. So, it comes to deeply hurt her seeing his career fall apart after what he has done for her, and then we see things for him get even more difficult with the 1929 stock-market crash. Will Peppy save George and help him make a comeback?
That the plot of “The Artist” is such an old one ended up taking away from the overall experience for me a bit as I knew where it was heading and that everything would eventually be alright. All I could hope for was that the director and actors would keep things interesting so that I was not thinking about the outcome too much. This is where this movie succeeds because the performances are so rich and the direction is nothing short of excellent to where I was caught up in the moment to where I started watching and stopped thinking so much.
Jean Dujardin looks like he walked right out of a 1920’s silent film here, and he was clearly born to play George Valentin. In doing a movie within a movie, he manages to balance out both Valentin the star and Valentin the man. Much of the acting in silent films involved a lot of mugging, and its great fun to watch Dujardin getting ready to shoot a scene as he makes clear how much he is playing for the camera. But when Valentin is not making a movie, Dujardin’s performance becomes all the more remarkable as he expresses emotions he is not in a position to verbalize onscreen or off of it.
This is the thing about screen acting; the most powerful moments in a movie can come from just one look from an actor. Being able to make clear what a character is thinking without saying it out loud is the biggest challenge, and the actors in “The Artist” have to work even harder because words will not save them, especially even when certain dialogue is put on the screen for all to see. That they do succeed in drawing us in emotionally with little in the way of sound or dialogue is a true testament to their talents.
Matching Dujardin scene for scene is Bejo who plays rising film star Peppy Miller. She is a joy to behold and an infinitely appealing presence here, and that smile of hers lit up my heart in a way few things can. Seeing Peppy rise to the level of a movie star is endless fun, but Bejo also keeps her a likable character even when success threatens to spoil her rotten. This made me like Peppy all the more as a result.
There is a slew of other great performances to be found in “The Artist” which does not have a weak one to be found in its entire cast. John Goodman looks like he’s having a marvelous time channeling his “Matinee” character for the role of studio boss Al Zimmer. James Cromwell is very touching as Valentin’s loyal butler Clifton as he becomes the conscience this fallen movie star needs to hear out. It is also great to see Penelope Ann Miller here as Valentin’s wife, Doris, a character who does not seem to be the least bit satisfied with this marriage.
But the one who upstages everyone here is Uggie who portrays George’s ever so faithful Jack Russell terrier named Jack. Uggie reminded me of Mike the Dog who stole many scenes in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” from his human co-stars and, like Mike, he becomes as big a character as everyone else here. That he is able to convey certain emotions to where he gets a police officer to save his owner from certain death is amazing. His performance topped off what had been a great year for dogs at the movies along with another named “Beginners.” Isn’t it about time the Academy Awards gave animals special Oscars for their work onscreen?
Director Michel Hazanavicius stays very true to the way silent films were shot back in the day, and his extensive research of them certainly shows from start to finish. He makes “The Artist” look like it really came from the 1920’s as he transports you back in time to this specific cinematic period. He is also served well by a beautiful film score by Ludovic Bource which heightens the already strong emotions to great effect, and by cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman who gives “The Artist” a striking look which does not betray any of today’s technological advances which could have been used here.
Having said all this, “The Artist” would not have been my choice for Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards (my pick was “The Tree of Life”). Plus, with such a familiar story, it feels like we are getting hit here by a case of deja vu. Regardless, it is still a fantastic piece of filmmaking which you owe it to yourself to watch if you have not already. Along with “Hugo,” many may look at 2011 as the year movies reached back in time to remind us of what a magical experience they were when they first came to exist.
* * * ½ out of * * * *