Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin in The Artist (SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
If Mel Brooks’ 1976 SILENT MOVIE operates on a gimmick, Michel Hazanavicius’ THE ARTIST transcends the gimmick. Both films are corny and sentimental, and in truth, without the treatment of each one as a silent movie, they both would be considered just that- corny and sentimental. But where Brooks’ movie is a long joke, THE ARTIST weaves all that we may know about silent movies into it, and provides opportunities for the actors and the filmmaker that today’s movies don’t always afford.
The black and white cinematography is stunning. When I see really good b/w photography in a restored older movie or in a new one, the effect to me is like drinking the cleanest, purest, coldest water I can think of. There are many people I’ve talked to, adults as well as adolescents, who see these “old” movies as just accepting black and white as a matter-of-fact, because color was not available to them, and at the advent of color, these pictures just slithered away in shame.
Of course this isn’t true. Black-and-white was treated as its own medium, and the directors and cinematographers who worked (or still work) in that medium sculpt light and shadow into an aesthetically telling image. THE ARTIST is beautiful in black-and-white, and is an appropriate choice for the story, but, curiously, it doesn’t make the film seem dated. You are (wonderfully) caught halfway between knowing it’s trying to recall a bygone era, and at the same time presenting itself as a contemporary movie.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin- even the character’s name evokes the Silent Era) is a successful silent film actor with a wife and all the trappings of a Big Hollywood Star. Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, a stunning, beguiling Argentine actress) wants to get into pictures, and by happenstance, becomes connected with Valentin, and after they actually meet (and boy, do they ever meet cute). They spend time together, despite his being married. As their story progresses, two great movies come favorably to mind.
The movie is set in 1927- the year of THE JAZZ SINGER, the first (to a fair degree) talking picture. George is riding high on his fame, but when he is confronted with the onset of the talking picture, he at first cavalierly regards it as a toy, a passing fad (as so many people did back then). SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, of course, dealt with this event as well, but in that movie the actress having trouble with the transition to sound is treated mockingly, and ultimately as the villain of the piece. You know that Valentin is a bit too cocky for his own good, but you empathize with his dashing good nature. Soon you realize that he has trouble with the change not because he has great charisma but a weak voice, but because he doesn’t think anyone would want to hear his voice.
Peppy Miller is a young, energetic woman who wants to make it in pictures. She is part of a group of adoring fans that is mobbing Valentin one day as he is leaving the studio. She gets really close to the edge of the crowd, and then, in an instant, she is standing next to him. Valentin is flattered, and has a momentary meeting of the eyes with her. As he turns away from her, she kisses him on the cheek- just as the cameras explode with light. Her picture appears in the papers the next day (on the front page, ‘natch), and she uses this as coinage to further her career. Peppy waits outside a studio to get a job (Malcolm McDowell has a nice bit in this scene), and when there is a call for dancers, she gets in. In a delightful set-up that teeters on the implausible (I told you they meet really cute) Valentin and Peppy’s eyes meet, and the bonding makes you feel warm all over. The couple rehearse a scene where he casually whisks her away in a dance move. They attempt to film that shot…several times.
They become friends, but each yearns for something more. Eventually, Valentin embarks on a downward spiral when he refuses to perform in sound movies, while Peppy soars higher and higher as a movie star. Yes, to hear it, it sounds like a WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?/A STAR IS BORN allusion, but the widening gap is not a reason for either character to become bitter. THE ARTIST certainly doesn’t plunge to the depths James Mason did in STAR IS BORN, but Valentin’s reality is made very clear to us, and we follow his journey, bathed in genuine suspense. (There is, I believe, a special circle in hell for people who reveal the ending of movies, and I don’t want to go there. I will tell you, however, that to me the ending was so exciting (and clever and unexpected) that I felt I was watching live theater. And yes, the opening day audience I was in applauded when the movie was over.)
To be sure, the movie with dialogue would be little more than a corny and dated melodrama, and it did not linger long in my mind when I walked out of the theater, but the immediate contact you make with the movie is exhilarating. The leads are supremely well cast. Jean Dujardin, A Frenchman with a face like Clark Gable’s and a smile like Gene Kelly’s performs the delicate balancing act of making George Valentin a vain man while giving the audience plenty to empathize with. I’ve already noted Berenice Bejo’s ethereal beauty (when I first saw her face my heart skipped a beat and I encountered strange stirrings in my utility belt). What is a true credit to the screenwriters and the actress is that Peppy Miller does not become the expected stereotype of a ruthless bitch who burns her bridges as she rises to the top. Her empathy and enduring feelings for George are always in evidence. It’s really refreshing to see.
There are many lovely grace notes throughout the movie, some of them really using the silent format. Among them is a scene involving Peppy and a man’s jacket that starts off reminding you of a certain goofy thing you might have done in high school (especially if you’re a guy), but then becomes quite erotic. There is a really effective nightmare sequence (effective because you really don’t think it’s a nightmare…and then there’s the ending. I wish I could tell you more about this joyous scene.
The two “foreign” leads are supported by some fine character actors. You never thought you’d hear Penelope Ann Miller and “character actor” in the same sentence, but here she is, barely recognizable as Valentin’s (somewhat) shrewish wife, Doris. (There’s a nice little nod to CITIZEN KANE with a brief montage showing the two at breakfast). James Cromwell, largely known for corporate bastards and other untrustworthy people (although Ronny Cox has the corner on that market, I think) has a welcome sympathetic role as Valentin’s faithful butler. Ed Lauter lurks as another butler.
The real character actor to watch, though, is John Goodman. Playing a studio head is a cakewalk for him (MATINEE comes to mind), but of all the supporting actors, he uses the silent film format the best. He doesn’t mug, as many of the silent actors did to compensate for the lack of sound, but his face and body really tell the whole story about his character, and the actor seems to be having a ball.
Production design and cinematography are a joy to behold in THE ARTIST, particularly if you’re a film buff, or just love “old” movies. As stated before, the photography is evocative of a bygone era, but the resolution of the imagery is clean and sharp. The sets and costumes also really place this in the past, and help create the devil-may-care mood of the Roaring Twenties, as well as the grim lack of prospects during the Depression.
There has been much Oscar talk about this movie, and it’s leading the Golden Globes nomination list with six (Picture- Musical or Comedy, Director, Actor for Dejardin, Suporting Actress for Bejo, Screenplay and Original Score), so its Academy Award chances are pretty much nailed. For those living in the (someyimes) fly-over zone of Chicago’s Far South Suburbs, do make the trip to Streeterville, Lake View, or Evanston to see this picture.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.