The Artist

When I was in film school a professor once told us that silent films were the true manifestation of the cinematic art.  What makes a film different from a play?  It’s the editing and the ability to emphasize images by getting close-ups.  He also claimed that when sound came in, they were only just starting to perfect this silent art and that the arrival of the new technology stifled true cinema.   Indeed there is a school of experimental filmmakers led by Stan Brakhage that uses no sound whatsoever, not even music.  It’s all pure image and editing.

Of course there is a world of difference between a Stan Brakhage short and The Artist, which is at its heart an old fashioned melodrama right out of 1920’s Hollywood.  It is a black and white silent film set in the period of the transition to sound.  George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, would have agreed with my old professor about the technology of sound degrading cinema.  He is an entertainer of the old school (Valentin not my old professor) who can float through a tap routine with a serene smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.  He looks good in a tux and a pencil thin mustache and he knows it. 

By chance he meets a talented young starlet named Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, who’s also quite a hoofer.  She’s dazzled by him and he’s attracted to her, as much by her talent as her long legs.  He provides her with her first break.   

When studio head Al Zimmer, played by John Goodman, shows George a screen test using the new recording technology, George refuses to be a part of it, preferring instead to write, produce and direct his own film.  Peppy, despite her infatuation with George, is not adverse to the new technology and as her star rises, his falls.

It is amazing that this film got made.  Making a black and white silent film, shot with 4:3 aspect ratio, just like an old movie, seems like asking modern movie audiences to stay away.  You add in the simple, almost naïve story, you wonder how this got past the first story conference.

What makes it work is the charisma of the two stars.  Jean Dujardin plays George as an irrepressible ham, but one you can’t help but love.  The secret is that he is so secure in his talent that he’s not threatened by his fellow cast members and he treats the crew with respect and affection.  Plus, just one of Dujardin’s expressions says more than pages of dialog.

Likewise Berenice Bejo captures both Penny’s ambition and her humanity.  Despite her gratefulness to George and her crush on him, she takes advantage of the breaks he refuses, and enjoys stardom almost as much as he does.  But you can see how the downward turn in his fortunes distresses her.   In the end when she has an opportunity to help him she does.

John Goodman finds very little new in the character of the cigar chomping, bottom line obsessed stereotype of the studio chief, but he plays it to the hilt.  Special mention needs to go to Uggie, the Jack Russell Terrier who plays The Dog.  He’s smart, funny and loyal.  What a good boy!

The Artist is not high cinematic art.  I think my old film professor was a little dogmatic.  There are silent films that achieved greatness, but there are more that are merely good, mediocre or bad, just like talkies and everything else for that matter.  Sound did not kill cinema artistically.  I guess The Artist would have to be considered an art film in this day and age and that is going to limit its appeal, which is a shame because it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.


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