Opening with a movie-within-a-movie sequence that promises actor Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, Hollywood action star, absolutely will not speak, The Artist, a silent film about Hollywood during the late 1920s as it transitions to the era of sound, does exactly that and what a majestic delight it is. This is the ultimate valentine to the cinema. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist, far more than any other film released this year, is movie production at its very finest and most admirable.
Each frame is steeped in Hollywood lore. Shot to resemble both the style and substance of era filmmaking, The Artist – from the art to the wardrobe to the optical fade outs – absolutely rolls in the syrupy staples of a bygone era and reminds us of the how and the why classic Hollywood is so important to our contemporary and somewhat cynical modern times. Certainly, Hazanavicius’ film has two strikes against it that might keep modern film audiences at bay: it’s in black-and-white and it’s a silent film, yet the absolute bliss that drips from the picture proves that sometimes a bit of inspired earnestness is all you need to make movie magic.
Yes, Virginia, it seems you can go back to the start all over again.
After the premiere of his latest silent film, Valentin poses for some pictures outside the theater with the press and an endless ocean of adoring and mostly female fans. A woman, who has dropped her purse, bumps into him and quickly the press snaps a couple of pictures of the two. Her sudden appearance is quite a splash and makes front pages in Variety and all the other trade newspapers much to the disapproval of his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).
When another chance encounter puts the mystery girl on the screen with Velentin, the two share a comedic moment that soon hints at a curious emotion that passes between them. The ceremonial dance has begun. It is obvious heart strings are being plucked but the timing of their rising and falling tides keep them apart. Rather quickly, the mystery woman goes from a certain Nobody to much-in-demand actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), America’s favorite cinematic sweetheart, while Valentin, bemused and unwilling to accept sound as the medium of future, manages to darken his star status with an unyielding belief in silent cinema.
After a series of unfortunate decisions stemming from Valentin’s refusal to incorporate sound into his adventure pictures, he loses his wife and all his souvenirs from their life together. He is a man alone; a man time and Hollywood is quickly forgetting. In the melodrama that is The Artist, one star wins everything while the other loses it all and yet their fates are tied, twisted, and finally brought back together with a little help from a chauffer, Clifton (James Cromwell), studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman), and a dog.
A large part of The Artist concerns itself with the old guard of Hollywood unable to accept that sound and sound effects would be the future of filmmaking. When shown the first dailies to incorporate sound into the filmmaking process, Valentin laughs it off. You can have it, he suggests. He’ll have no part of such madness. Cut to a dynamic scene where, alone in his make-up room, he is haunted by every single sound around him but he is unable to scream or be heard. It’s a stark recognition that the stars of Hollywood are losing their voice to this new medium; nothing is permanent in this industry. It’s a nightmarish scene that rivals Federico Fellini’s madcap hallucinations and is certainly an innovative production of sound design courtesy of sound engineers Gerard Lamps and Nadine Muse.
Technical aspects aside, the performances from Dujardin and Bejo are simply irresistible and so full of the charm of classic Hollywood that together they, a combined one-two punch if ever there was one, make it look all too easy. Don’t think it’s all in the face either because, while this is a silent feature, mere pantomime is not the heart they are pumping. This is the stuff of legends; two performances that never go over the top but are so widely consistent and entertaining that every nuance is resounding…if not exhausting. Yes, The Artist is a whirlwind of emotion. It’s all there. Everything lands and nothing misses the target.
Ripe with Citizen Kane set-ups and fluid movements punch-drunk with meaning, the rich cinematography of Guillaume Schiffman is a brilliant component to the success of Hazanavicius’ vision, who also shared editing duties with Anne-Sophie Bion. The cuts keep the momentum lively and consequential – demanding further study. The camera’s movements are full of visual cues that celebrate the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Also of note is the wonderfully epic score provided by composer Ludovic Bource. It’s a soundtrack that sneaks up on the listener and with only one traditional song used – ‘Pennies From Heaven’ performed here by Rose Murphy – contains more emotion than one would expect from the lush strings and its almost giddy use of horns. It certainly elevates the medium of composition and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bource goes on tour with it alongside certain screenings of the film.
At the end of the day, we go to movies because we want to celebrate something; film is the medium to get us on our feet or move us to tears. The Artist is that film. It’s a celebration of the movies and, if you set aside modern day cynicism, one can certainly stand up and cheer as it fades to black. With only one other film deserving of such high praise – that being Steven Spielberg’s War Horse - The Artist is my pick for this year’s Best Picture.
Trust me, The Artist is a timeless film that you will see again and again.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin; Bérénice Bejo; John Goodman; James Cromwell; Penelope Ann Miller
Genre: Romance | Comedy | Drama
Tagline: The Artist
Memorable Movie Quote: "Boom!"
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Official Site: www.warnerbros.fr/the-artist.html (French)
Release Date: November 23, 2011 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: Hollywood, 1927: As silent movie star George Valentin wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion, he sparks with Peppy Miller, a young dancer set for a big break.
Available on Blu-ray - June 26, 2012
Screen Formats: 1.33:1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD); UV digital copy
Playback: Region A (reviewed)
The Artist arrives on Blu-ray with a BD-50 disc packaged in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover courtesy of Sony. The black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is crisp with vibrant detail and – for a film designed to look like a silent film from the classic era – looks downright stellar on blu-ray. Lines are bold and ripple with details in patterns and fabric. Facial features are striking and most of the details remain filmic with a nice use of light grain. The highly accurate production detail looks great throughout the presentation and – with light levels clear matched alongside deep blacks – there is a filmic quality throughout. While this is a silent film, the audio – showcasing Ludovic Bource's Academy Award winning score - is presented in a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. It’s a beautiful experience.
Well, this is fun. Things get started off well with The Artist: The Making of an American Romance. Topics covered include the movie's themes, characters, locations and plot with lots of cast and crew interviews mixed with on the set footage. There is an interesting look at rehearsal footage sprinkled with a good history lesson concerning the silent era of Hollywood. There is also an in-depth Q&A session with the director, producer, and the majority of the cast that was held after one of the many screenings of the movie as it made its rounds around the film festival circuit. The Blooper Reel is fun but brief and features only a few screw-ups. In Hollywood as a Character audiences are treated to a tour of historic Hollywood. Rounding out the collection are four featurettes that highlight the artists behind the movie and their contributions to the final product.
- ‘The Artist’: The Making of an American Romance (22 min)
- Q&A with the Filmmaker and Cast (45 min)
- Blooper Reel (2 min)
- Hollywood as a Character (5 min)
- The Artisans Behind ‘The Artist’ (12 min)