Monday, December 19, 2011

Film Review: The Artist (2011)

The Artist, in case you weren't aware, is a modern silent film shot in black & white and set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies. It's funny, clever, heartwarming, and inventive, which is all great, but it's also a lesson in the power of film's most basic language and tools. The Artist is rigorous in creating a silent film that adheres to the language and sensibility of silent films. The fact that the film succeeds so well is testament to how powerful the medium of film can be, even when it's stripped down to its basics.

The artist of the title is George Valentin, a silent film star in the style of Douglas Fairbanks, brilliantly played by Jean Dujardin. In a storyline borrowed largely from A Star Is Born, Valentin's career starts to fizzle while his platonic love interest, Peppy Miller, becomes the major star he used to be. Berenice Bejo plays Peppy and is as good as Dujardin. In keeping with the silent films it emulates, The Artist uses a plot that's stuffed with melodrama, silliness and sentimentality, but makes it work. We know the story is silly and mawkish, but the elan of the director and the stars give the story a charm and lightness that can't be resisted.

The film ends on a happy note with a dancing sequence (with sound) being filmed on a sound stage, but as the camera pulls back during the final shot, our view of the stars is obscured and the soundtrack is filled with the shouts of film technicians calling out instructions to each other. This last shot is director Michel Hazanavicius' subtle reminder that when sound entered the picture, it announced the arrival of the age of techies and computer programmers taking over the creative process of making films. It would be wrong to call The Artist old-fashioned; a more apt description would be artisanal.

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