• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:June 22, 2021

The Artist: A Silent Treatment

theartistMichel Hazanavicius is obviously a man who loves the cinema. French audiences know his OSS 117 films, spoofs of the spy genre, and he had reportedly been thinking about making a silent film for a long time when the opportunity finally came. We don’t see many of those these days; the last one to receive wide distribution was Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie (1976). In fact, there have been reports of cinemagoers demanding a refund after seeing The Artist because they didn’t know it was silent and were very unhappy about it. There will always be ingrates.

Receiving standing ovations
In 1927, there is no greater star of the cinema in Hollywood than George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). His latest film, “A Russian Affair”, receives standing ovations at the premiere and Valentin accepts them with his usual poise and charm, alongside his popular Jack Russell Terrier, Jack. After the screening, Valentin poses for pictures outside the theater and an attractive, young woman accidentally bumps into him. She quickly regains her composure and agrees to pose for the press alongside the famous movie star… who does not mind at all. One who does mind, however, is Valentin’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller), who finds Variety’s cover photo the morning after annoying, to say the least. The headline above the photo asks “Who’s That Girl?”. The answer is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and she’s trying to start a career in Tinseltown.

After being hired for a movie as an extra, she’s spotted by Valentin who just happens to star in it. There’s a connection, but the two of them are headed in drastically different directions…

Letting us in on the joke
Mel Brooks’s silent movie was just that, silent, but he didn’t make much of an effort to recreate the style of the genre. Hazanavicius on the other hand has done everything in his (and his team’s) power to make this look like a movie from the late ’20s – but he’s not denying that this is a stunt. On the contrary, he’s constantly letting us in on the joke, in smart and funny ways. For instance, the movie begins with a scene from the latest Valentin epic where the hero is being tortured by a villain who tells him to “Speak!”. Cinephiles will enjoy a scene bound to remind them of Sunset Blvd (1950), or details like a sly Greta Garbo reference… or the fact that Jack the dog looks a bit like Asta in the Thin Man movies (although that was a different breed of Terrier).

The movie was also shot in the same aspect ratio as films in those days, which in Hazanavicius’s mind allows the actors to dominate the screen more intensely. He has a point, and Dujardin and Bejo are up to the task. He brought them along from the OSS 117 movies and Dujardin in particular is perfect as a leading man who looks like a descendant of Rudolph Valentino, Clark Gable and Cary Grant. He and Bejo adapt their acting styles to the genre (and depicted era) and are completely disarming.

The story is a melodrama with few surprises, but pleasure is derived from every detail that infuses it, from in-jokes (two sequences have sound, and ingeniously so) to Ludovic Bource’s score that remains true to silent-era music.

One of the film’s harshest critics is Kim Novak, who blasted the use of Bernard Herrmann’s music from Vertigo (1958) in one sequence. I have to agree with the critic Todd McCarthy that it “yanks you out of one film and places you in the mindset of another”. Still, we’re probably in the minority; not that many will hear the cues and think “Hitchcock”. Hazanavicius meant to celebrate the art form that he loves. Apart from this musical misstep, The Artist is an irresistible love letter.

The Artist 2011-France-Belgium. Part Silent. 100 min. B/W. Produced by Thomas Langmann, Emmanuel Montamat. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman. Music: Ludovic Bource. Costume Design: Mark Bridges. Cast: Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), BĂ©rĂ©nice Bejo (Peppy Miller), John Goodman (Al Zimmer), James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle… Malcolm McDowell.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Dujardin), Original Score, Costume Design. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actor (Dujardin), Original Score. BAFTA: Best Film, Director, Actor (Dujardin), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Music, Costume Design. Cannes: Best Actor (Dujardin). European Film Award: Best Composer.

Last word: “When I started to work on it, I concentrated on the format, how a silent film was told. Then later on, I chose the story, and when I started working on it, I really immersed myself in the American way of telling a story, which is really specific, especially in this era, with the Hays Code. People don’t kiss, there isn’t any kissing in my movie, the dancing scenes are the love scenes. But it’s an American way to tell a story, so I tried to think as an American director, because it was the movie I wanted to refer to.” (Hacanavicius, A.V. Club)



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