Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Artist (2011)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius                          Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Film Score: Ludovic Bource                             Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman and James Cromwell

Last year’s Academy Award winner for best picture is so densely packed with symbolism as an homage to Hollywood, that it’s easy to see why it won. The Artist can barely contain within its frames the totality of film history that it pays tribute to, not the least of which is the fact that the film is silent. But lest you think this is the only serious effort to take up the silent form in modern film, it’s important to note that this was actually done four years earlier by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society in an absolutely brilliant film called The Call of Cthulhu. And while The Artist is obviously a much more ambitious project, the silent aspect is not treading on virgin territory.

Where to begin? The story opens in 1927 with a film-within-a-film scene at a theater--the idea of which goes back to Shakespeare--with Jean Dujardin as the leading man who by no accident looks like Douglas Fairbanks and who is named George Valentine, as a nod to Rudoph Valentino. He brings his little dog, which begs comparison with Asta from The Thin Man series, out on stage with him after the show in preference to the leading lady, giving the whole thing a feeling of Singing in the Rain. And we’re still only five minutes into the film. The conceit is phenomenal, dealing with the transition from silent films to sound while staying in the silent mode, completely opposite and superior in a powerful way to Singing in the Rain. The love story of the young newcomer, Bérénice Bejo, who dances and acts her way into the heart of the big star, is far more believable too.

It makes sense to me that the two leads are French. It’s clear that they are studied and have a true grasp of the art of pantomime that they are attempting to emulate. And while Bejo is good, Dujardin is masterful, slightly attenuating his performance when he is not working as an actor, and thus his subtle use of pantomime gives the entire film a real grounding that era. This is most noticeable when he is acting alongside the Americans who, while quite good at acting, simply don’t have the understanding of pantomime that, ironically, gives the film a wonderful sense of realism. But that’s also the hinge on which the later half of the story turns because there is a distinct reference to A Star is Born, as Bejo’s career begins to outshine Dujardin’s. And in extending that idea further, the film even manages to touch on aspects of the noir.

The direction is top notch, with Michel Hazanavicius’s camera simultaneously emulating not only the type of shots from the twenties, but the aspect ratio of the screen as well. There is also a scene with sound, though not speech, that is breathtaking in its use. Then there is the music which, so crucial to silent film, becomes almost another character. Ludovic Bource has taken every opportunity to be original and in doing so has wedded the perfect sound to this silent masterpiece. Not only does he refuse to limit himself to a symphonic score, but his emulation of jazz and popular tunes--as well as familiar cues from films like Vertigo--to support the action is stunning. In addition, there are scenes like one that opens on the image of phonograph playing a record, that begin silently, giving the entire film a sense of carefully thought out brilliance. The only diminishment of that brilliance is the use of actual vocals on “Pennies from Heaven” on a montage which would have been much more powerful without them.

This is such a good film that superlatives don’t do it justice. There have been attempts at Hollywood love letters before, but nothing like this. Every facet of the film has been so carefully created that the whole thing shimmers on the screen from start to finish. If you’re any kind of fan of film you’ve already seen it, if not already own it. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a treat. The Artist needs only two words of promotion: get it!

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