Like many movie snobs and deadbeat critics, I too studied film. As a consequence, I’ve met a number of hacks — among them was a young man who tried to emulate classic cinema. Everything from the scores he used, to his cinematography and narratives were brined in dust and had an air of pretentiousness. Usually, I refused to comment on his work in-person, in awe of his unwillingness to innovate, because, in all honesty, he was the farthest thing from the second-coming of Georges Méliès. To this day, I also live by the mantra: “Out with the old, in with the new.” However, I’ll make an exception for Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the first black-and-white silent in God knows how long. Not surprisingly, it has won over most major reviewers — some predicting that it’ll take the Oscars by storm — yet unlike Hugo, the last motion picture to pay homage to the oldies, this drama can be enjoyed by all.
But where you see it is essential. Although I’ve seen a lot of silent films, I was born after talkies were introduced, relinquishing the pleasure of seeing one in a theater. Hazanavicius’ latest allows me the opportunity to have that experience. That’s what makes it magical: The ability to watch a story unfold, and then, as the soundtrack fades out, hearing nothing but the audience’s light breathing and an occasional cough. In a generation of loud explosions and potty-mouthed dialogues, this quietness is incredibly soothing. Then, after this moment to relax and process everything, the toe-tapping keys and blaring horns join back in, reigniting my excitement.
What’s surprising is that scattered throughout this jubilance, there’s a distinct darkness. The story chronicles silent movie-star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who, after the introduction of “talkies,” fades into obscurity. Once a hit with the press and fans alike, he’s eclipsed by an equally charismatic actress (and former co-star) named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). As The Artist unfolds, a tormented psyche is revealed from behind the pencil stache.
Like many artists, George won’t compromise his vision and, unimpressed by a demo-reel presented by Al Zimmer (Paul Goodman), his hard-nosed producer (who immediately halts production on all projects that don’t utilize sound), he goes off to direct his own works. And, expectedly, the public has moved on (an intentional parallel to our time perhaps?), thrusting him deeper into oblivion.
The impact Dujardin’s brilliant performance has lingers long after the screening. Add to that, the well-executed inclusion of Valentin’s canine companion, Jack (played by three Jack Russell Terriers), which provides a comedic relief — especially during the film’s sadder moments — and humanizes the lead. And while the film lacks color, these characters don’t. In fact, they’re the main attraction.
Yet the challenge was telling a story that’d pay respects to its inspirations, but also engage younger movie-goers; The Artist overcomes that roadblock with a fantastic visual palette. Even those who’ve never seen a silent film should adjust to Hazanavicius’ neo-surrealist style without problem. And armed with intricately-crafted set-pieces, he masterfully recreates the ‘20s — the only thing that outmatches the aesthetic of Bejo’s beauty.