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Rapid Review: The Artist

January 29, 2012

I once decided not to continue a relationship because the guy had only two movies in his collection: Varsity Blues and Speed.   Well, there was more to it than that, but I do find it to be true that a person’s taste in film says quite a bit about his/her character.  Shakespeare once said,” The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.”  I don’t trust someone who doesn’t love music, and I am absolutely stupefied by folks who do not enjoy movies.

Peppy and George's photo op

The creators of  The Artist are kindred spirits, I can tell.  They’ve presented here for a modern-day audience  a love letter to everything I’ve adored about the movies for as long as I can remember.  The movies allow us to live vicariously through others, to imagine a life that is not our own, to yearn for what we cannot have, and be grateful for what we do possess.  On the screen, we see dreams born, realized and sometimes squashed.    The Artist isn’t necessarily an innovative film.  It’s simply a  wonderful sonnet penned to an industry built on the making and breaking of dreams.  In short, it is by far one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

French director Michel Hazanavicius presents the story in a mostly silent, black and white format because it would be a tragedy to do otherwise.  There is a generation out there who will no doubt scoff at the idea of seeing a black and white film, much less a silent one, and what a shame.  We’ve forgotten how hugely popular the stars of the silent era truly were.  Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and hundreds of others captured the hearts of the American people with their amazing ability to reflect the gamut of human emotions through their eyes and movements alone .  The Artist reminds us how fickle that once adoring, loving audience can be in the face of change.

Peppy rises to fame

The hero of The Artist, George Valentin ( a nod to Valentino, although star Jean Dujardin is a dead ringer for both Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks) is a top-grossing box office smash when the film opens in 1927.  It is the last gasp for silent films; talkies are on the way in.  George’s life is changed forever when an aspiring starlet, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) steals the spotlight from him in a charming chance encounter in front of the press.

Peppy's dance

Peppy’s star rises as George’s declines, but there’s more depth to the tale than this simple explanation can do justice.  Bejo’s Peppy is a woman as well as a  talent; she and George have a connection that time and society can’t easily rupture.  George’s plight is one that was common for many of the silent era’s stars.  Once voices became central to a star’s worth, many couldn’t live up to the promise that their face would seem to suggest.  Only a few silent era actors(Garbo, Chaplin, Crawford) would transition successfully into the talkies.

Story isn’t what’s central to The Artist‘s charms, however.  It’s the mood and the atmosphere created by cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, art director Gregory S. Cooper, and production designer Laurence Bennett that make the movie spring to life.  It’s an artificial world that completely lacks artifice.  We believe in the characters and in their desperation and triumph; we are lucky to be a part of that short instance when they live  in front of us on-screen.

I haven’t been to such an engrossing film in a long time.  The audience becomes a part of the show itself.   Throughout the movie, you could hear gasps, joyous laughter, and even stifled tears (well, those were mostly mine). We care about George and Peppy the way that audiences of  those long ago silent films must have cared about all the characters streaming before them week after week, many of whom have been sadly lost to history in reels of film that now only exist in memory.   The Artist is a fitting ode to that long ago era; it is a film that draws you in, making you remember what you love so much about the live movie experience.  It’s wonderful to be a part of something so full of joy and exuberance, however fleeting it might be…

Overall Grade:

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