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The Artist: An Oscar-worthy silent film

Meghan Thomassen | Sunday, February 19, 2012

 

When films packed with robot wars, gang violence and stereoscopic overstimulation are in theaters, why would anyone want to rewind almost 100 years to the era of silent black and white films? 

For those who liked “Midnight in Paris,” then “The Artist” will be equally delightful.  Set in 1920s Hollywood, this homage to the old-style of film studies how an actor’s personality becomes a work of art through public adoration and recreation. 

Released during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, “The Artist” was nominated for six Golden Globes, the most out of all the 2011 films. It won Best Motion Picture for Musical or Comedy and Best Original Score. Dashing Jean Dujardin deservedly won Best Actor for Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. The Academy Awards also seem promising for “The Artist” as it has been nominated for 10 awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. 

This French romantic drama, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, spins a tale of star-crossed lovers, separated by the chasm created by the talkies craze that hit Hollywood in full force at the turn of the decade. Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s wife, are a brilliant pair. 

It’s 1927. Silent films are burning bright and fast — too fast. While George Valentin, played by Dujardin, rides the crest of his fame, he deigns to recognize aspiring actress Peppy Miller, played by Bejo. After a chance encounter, George jumpstarts Peppy’s “Pretty Woman” rise to stardom. 

Peppy is an utter delight, charming to the core with her mischievous, nose-wrinkling grin and true love for George. As much as “The Artist” tells a story about Dujardin’s wounded pride as his time in the spotlight comes to an end, it is equally about Peppy’s undying devotion to a man she at first idolized and then adored, despite his descent from fame. At first, she might have just been star struck, but when George’s career suffers a devastating downfall, she remains loyal to the end.

Peppy might have been too perfect of a heroine if George hadn’t kept her at arm’s length for the majority of the film. Despite George’s inability to accept Peppy, she acts as an anonymous benefactor to George. When George hits rock bottom, Peppy truly has the opportunity to shine. With every downward spiral, 

Peppy matches it with more actions of selflessness. Like a well-studied artist, she maintains a backwards glance to her predecessors, solely George, while still taking America by storm. It’s a wonderful combination of “Singing in the Rain” and “All About Eve.” The Hollywood scene bursting with new life and sound barely brightens the travesty of being outmoded. 

Without spoiling any surprises, the film takes an unexpected turn after unexpected turn. The musical score, composed by Ludovic Bource, the same man who worked on “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” with Hazanavicius and Bejo, is brilliant. And Hazanavicius takes the audience down a psychological road unprecedented by the initially light mood of the film. Hazanavicius uses sound and silence and light and dark to make George’s despair as dynamic as possible. The result is an oscillation between pity for and frustration with George.

The film updates its 1920s premise through thoughtful use of sound and Dujardin and Bejo’s incredible ability to reflect every conflicting emotion on their faces. The simplicity of black and white allows for the actors to master striking facial expressions. Some of the best parts of the film are the moments in which Dujardin’s and Bejo’s eyes connect and exchange wordless messages. This sort of lost, unrecognized aspect of falling in love is enchanting. The audience becomes extremely attuned and attached to the way the actors smile, frown, cry and shout. Their appearances became the first source of information the audience receives about each character’s inner landscape. 

So the question becomes, then, when choosing between shoot-em-up intergalactic robot movies and Hazanavicius’ work, why wouldn’t anyone see “The Artist”? 

“The Artist” is still playing at AMC Showplace on West Chippewa Avenue in South Bend. 

 

Contact Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu