Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Silence is Golden

Movie Poster

You have been warned!!!

The Artist, (2011), a French film directed by Michel Hazanavicius is a truly remarkable film in many ways.

To get the most obvious feature of the film out of the way the film is silent!! Yes someone in the 2010’s decided to make a silent movie!! And not a silly picture like Mel Brook’s Silent Movie, (1976), which although enjoyable is a seriously silly piece of fluff.1

Unlike Silent Movie, The Artist is not satire it is instead an homage to silent movies although it does enjoy tweaking the audience by making fun of Hollywood clichés.

Since this film is an homage to silent movies it is filmed using similar techniques to silent films including the infamous iris opening and closing shot. There is also the liberal use of title cards.

The film follows the downward trajectory of the career of character George Valentin and the upward career of character Peppy Miller.

In the opening scene George is celebrating at the opening of his latest silent film smash A Russian Affair and enjoying the attention of the press. While taking photos and questions George is accidentally knocked about by autograph hunter Peppy and she gets her picture on the front of Variety. This leads to Peppy getting a role in a movie, and when the director Al Zimmer tries to fire her George steps in and Peppy keeps her role in the movie.

With sound coming around George rejects it as a mere fad and when Al Zimmer says the studio will not finance another silent picture of his, George sinks his fortune into the movie and the movie bombs because people want to see talkies. Meanwhile a talking picture with Peppy as the lead is a smash making her a major star.

George’s wife leaves him and he is reduced to living in a small apartment. Eventually George has to fire his chauffeur Clifton who he can’t pay. During all of this George sells a lot of his personal belongings, which are secretly bought up by Peppy and stored in a room in her mansion.

Left with his dog Jack George has a breakdown and sets his apartment on fire, while trying to burn his old films. George is rescued and Peppy takes him to her place to convalesce.

There are a few more crises but the movie ends happily with George and Peppy forming a dance team a la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers.

One of things I liked about the movie was how, although there is a very strong romantic tension between our two leads the relationship never becomes a romantic one. The movie leaves unanswered the question of whether or not George and Peppy simply become good friends who work together or they also become romantically involved with each other. It is sort of nice to see on screen a relationship between a man and a women, who are not related, which is probably not a conventional romance.

The performances are excellent. Jean Dujardin, who plays George, and Berenice Bejo, who plays Peppy are well known French actors who hopefully will become much better known because of this film in the English speaking world.

It is fairly obvious that George is a combination of Douglas Fairbanks Senior, Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplain. Jean’s performance is both moving and convincing. If anything Berenice is even better has the up and coming new star Peppy, who is both very likable and plays beautifully a young women more than a little awed by her own success.

Both of the leads seem to have fully mastered the art of acting in a silent film which is quite different from acting in a talkie. In other words they ham it up and it works and is great fun to watch.

James Cromwell who plays Clifton the chauffeur is quite good playing his role with quiet dignity although in a silent movie an understated performance tends to get overwhelmed, which happens here to some extent.

John Goodman who plays Al the studio head, an obvious homage to Louis B. Mayer, does his role as an over the top caricature. The expressions, movements etc, that John goes through playing this role are a joy to behold and quite over the top.

Finally, but not least, is Uggie who plays Jack, the dog in case you forgot, is extraordinary and steals scene after scene in the movie. Absolutely priceless is the joyful way Uggie plays dead. The dog is a natural ham and that goes perfectly well with the rest of the movie.

The movie is in black and white, (Of course!), and the direction contains homage after homage to silent movies along with a careful and remarkably sparse use of title cards. The film is beautiful to look at.

Musically the sound track is sparse using most of the time a minimal piano accompaniment so that you get the feel that this is a “real” silent film. Other sounds are used only sparingly but effectively.

All in all The Artist is a very good movie which I hope will get more people interested in “real” silent movies.

1. Silent Movie, Wikipedia Here.

Pierre Cloutier

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