Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jason watches THE ARTIST

I know that this and HUGO are just two movies, but it still feels like there's suddenly a glut of romanticizing the silent era. Not that I'm complaining, I love silents, and anything that increases interest is good. And, oh by the way, THE ARTIST is also a solidly entertaining and clever story.

But before I get to the story, let me first talk about the gimmick--this is a silent film. It's set in the late silent era and early talkies (spanning 1927-1933). It allows for some pretty clever laugh lines (particularly when the titular artist's wife tells him, "We need to talk"), but rarely rises above the level of a gimmick. When talkies are introduced in 1929 there's a pretty ingenious scene where he has a mental breakdown while for the first time hearing sound effects (glasses clinking, girls laughing, etc.) At that point I expected it to slowly become a talkie, but it doesn't, it remains silent even in the sound era. But the best thing about making it a silent film is it expertly illustrates exactly how few words are needed to tell a story. When you have body language to express the emotions, the words are very rarely needed. This is a skill that you pick up from watching silents and has actually served me well before--e.g., when I went to a German film festival and watched a film that accidentally arrived with no subtitles. For all the stereotypes (alluded to in the film) of silent film stars "mugging" for the camera, in fact it's talkies that are more likely to insult the audience by verbalizing emotions that should be clear without words.

Okay, now on to the story. The artist of the title is George Valentin, a silent film star (Jean Dujardin). In a random chance, he bumps into fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and if photographed playfully flirting with her. She becomes the talk of the town and parlays that into a role in the movies, dutifully working her way up from extra to beauty girl to supporting player to star. They work together briefly, and the flirtation ramps up a notch. And then tragedy, in the form of sound. It is very true that talkies destroyed the careers of several excellent silent actors and actresses. But George seems to see his career dying when he watches his first sound test. The next time he sees Peppy, it's on a staircase where she is literally on her way up and he's on his way down, mirroring their careers. Peppy easily makes the transition to sound and becomes a huge star, while George fades into obscurity--sinking all his money into one last silent adventure. He's left with no one but his faithful servant and chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell). But Peppy still loves him, even if he's too dense to realize it or too proud to take her charity.

It's a loving and upbeat homage to the silent screen, and I couldn't help thinking it would make an nice angel/devil double feature with Richard Dreyfuss' 1974 X-rated tale of a broken down silent film director, INSERTS.

Running Time: 100 minutes
My Total Minutes: 259,876


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