When was the last time a feature-length silent movie got released? One thinks of Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" in 1976, and there is the work of Guy Maddin. But Maddin's films are more about using the silent style as a mode or surreal language in which to paint his own very personal, askew visions. "The Artist" is a straighforward silent film, a comedy set in the same era as "Singin' In the Rain", which is to say the end of an era. It has a score meant to invoke the effect of a live orchestra accompaniment. It's in black & white. It has intertitles. It begins in 1927, the year of the release of "The Jazz Singer", and on the eve of revolution: the advent of sound. It features a delight of a performance by Jean Dujardin (brilliantly invoking Gene Kelly) as matinee idol George Valentin. How expressive the faces had to be then. Dujardin shows how an actor could convey different characters just by varying the slant of an eyebrow: a shifty, mustachioed villain or a dashing swashbuckler.
The film adopts as its story that of "A Star Is Born", the 1937 version of which featured a star, Janet Gaynor (she of Murnau's rapturous "Sunrise"), who had herself actually lived the transition from the silents to the talkies. Valentin can't make that leap (and it's not until the end that one of the main reasons why is revealed), and finds himself on the scrapheap of history. At the same time a young woman with dreams of being a star (Berenice Bejo) stumbles into the spotlight and enchants the country. Valentin becomes a bit of mentor for her. Her star rises as his descends.
What's really disarming about the approach of director Michel Hazinavicius and his cast is that they've pulled this off without any trace--not even a hint--of irony. "The Artist" is affectionate. If this is meta--and it is--then it's meta of the sweetest kind. It actually gets many of its laughs from the antics of a cute little Jack Russell terrier, Valentin's companion and big screen co-star. (The dog steals the show). It has the guts to play straight a scene where the little dog actually goes scampering off to find a policeman during a moment of crisis, barking at the shooing officer until he takes the hint. You can either become impatient and grumble that all of this would maybe be amusing if you were, say, 100 years old, or you can embrace it. I come down enthusiastically in the latter camp.
I got such a kick out of Berenice Bejo as Peppy, the star who is born. You'd need just the right "it-girl" girl to nail this part, and Bejo is spot-on. In one sad, sweet scene Peppy performs a mime with Valentin's jacket on a hat-stand, putting her own arm through the sleeve so that the empty suit seems to carress her. Penelope Ann Miller does a spot-on homage to Jean Hagan and her turn in "Singin' in the Rain" as an obtusely recalcitrant star dragged heels-dug-in into the talkie era: she even looks like Hagan. James Cromwell is fun as Valentin's loyal valet. John Goodman is on hand as a blustering producer. Malcolm McDowell has a brief cameo where he really does embody the type who might have turned up on a Mack Sennet or Charlie Chaplin set.
While watching the film I kept thinking of a class I took last year with the Filmspotting boys, Matty "Ballgame" Robinson and Adam Kempenaar, "Hollywood Reflected: Movies About Movies", in which we screened both "Singin' in the Rain" and the 1937 "A Star is Born." It's as if the writers and director of "The Artist" were sitting in on the class. You've got so many of the themes of which they sung: a girl and a dream, success, identity shifts, the business, the way Hollywood chews you up and spits you out. And there's the extra wrinkle that this is a French production, so we're getting Hollywood as reflected through a Gallic prism. But then the French have always been about reawakening Americans to our own film roots.
As we stand on the precipe of great technological changes in film in our own era, as movies seek new boundaries to open up (or new gimmicks to exploit, it often seems to me), what else will be left on the scrapheap of history? If the appreciative audience with which a I saw "The Artist" is any indication, what's gone is never truly lost. Technological revolutions don't change anything fundamental: people in 2012 still go to the movies for the same reasons they did in 1927. Just in recent years I've seen audiences queue up to see the restored "Metropolis", Fritz Lang's 1927 epic, and cheer at the end. You could perhaps argue that movies got more adult, more complex and rich, as the years went on (though I wouldn't want to demarcate things too strictly: D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were certainly as emotionally and thematically complex as any film artists). And yet the important thing they do never really changed. "The Artist" is set in a time when movies made people happy. And we find, watching a film like this, that they still do.
-- January 13, 2012
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)