Benjamin’s Stash

These damn talkies will ruin everything! Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin, Academy Award nominee Berenice Bejo and John Goodman star in The Artist.

The ArtistCast of Characters:
George Valentin – Jean Dujardin
Peppy Miller – Berenice Bejo
Clifton – James Cromwell
Doris Valentin – Penelope Ann Miller
The Butler – Malcolm McDowell
Constance – Missi Pyle
Peppy’s Maid – Beth Grant
Peppy’s Butler – Ed Lauter
Policeman Fire – Joel Murray
Pawnbroker – Ken Davitian
Al Zimmer – John Goodman

Director – Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay – Michel Hazanavicius
Producer – Thomas Langmann
Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture

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George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is Hollywood’s hottest silent film star of the ’20s. He’s adored by the both the public and his gruff boss, Kinograph Studios head Al Zimmer (John Goodman), and has garnered a string of successful pictures to his name.

During the debut screening of his new film, Valentin bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a natural in front of the camera who he takes under his wing. Their chemistry together wins over both Zimmer and the public; however, as Peppy’s star continues to grow, George’s begins to fade, and with the arrival of the “talkies” – a new technology he dismisses as nothing but a fad – the sun may finally be setting on his fame and fortune filled career sooner than he’d like.

Some films are a sure thing for studio – comic book films, anything with Star Wars in the title, Happy Madison films (inexplicably successful, for sure, but they somehow just keep making money). And then there are certain pictures that take a little bit of extra effort to convince those studios head going all-in is in their best interests – The Passion of the Christ, a film spoken entirely in two dead languages (Latin and Aramaic); last year’s The Tribe, a film with no spoken or subtitled dialogue and told solely through sign language; and The Artist, a silent film whose story is told primarily through intertitles and the musical score.

Back in the ’20s, the silent film was king, but all that was about to change in 1927 when the first talkie arrived. Some, like George Valentin, saw it as a fad that would soon pass, but over the next five years, a San Andreas-sized seismic shift would alter the course of Hollywood forever. In 1929, the year of the first Academy Awards ceremony, all six Best Picture nominees were silent films. Come the next year, four of the five nominees were talkies.

So much for it being just a fad.

French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has put together something quite spectacular here. The Artist is a beautiful homage to a long forgotten era or Hollywood that extends beyond just being a gimmicky little tribute. Hazanavicius goes to great lengths in recapturing the look, sound and tone of the silent film – the 1.33:1 screen ratio, the black and white presentation (though presented in black and white, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman did shoot the film in color), shooting at a slightly lower frame rate of 22 fps (standard rate is 24 fps) to recreate the sped-up look of the ’20s silent films and the score serving as the film’s voice.

The score especially deserves special mention. Music for a silent film is much more crucial to the film’s success than other films. It’s more than just the background music here; in this case, as Aerosmith once said, the music is doing the talking. The spirit of the story, all of the emotions, the essence of each character – every aspect of the film hinges on Ludovic Bource’s Oscar-winning work, and Bource does a splendid job in giving The Artist its voice.

There’s not a second of this film where Hazanavicius’s commitment in recreating the spirit of the silent film isn’t shown (the director went the extra mile in superimposing Dujardin into footage of classic silent films), and each of his stylistic touches are applied with great authenticity. This is the sort of the film that could’ve easily fit in during the peak of the Silent Era, while at the same time, thanks to a key moment mid-way through the film, would’ve been viewed as progressive and ahead of its time. You’ll know what that moment is when it arrives. It’s a risky little move by Hazanavicius, but thanks to it arriving at just the right place and time, it works wonderfully.

Hazanavicius and casting director Heidi Levitt also deserve credit for their casting choices, which is every bit as crucial as the film’s score in determining whether or not this film winds up a success or failure. You can’t just throw Brad Pitt or any other A-lister in the picture. Just ’cause they’re talented doesn’t mean their presence fits the style of the time, and both Hazanavicius and Levitt make smart choices that go a long way in aiding the film’s authenticity. John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller pop up in small but vital roles that provide The Artist with enough star recognition without sacrificing the timeless, vintage quality the film needs from them (Goodman, in particular, is an inspired choice to play the gruff studio head).

More so than the supporting cast, the casting of the two leads is a make or break for the film, and the film finds the perfect fits in Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (both of whom have worked previously with Hazanavicius on a series of spy spoofs). Much like the score, twice the expressiveness is needed in telling the story sans spoken dialogue, and Dujardin and Bejo bring the right amount of camera mugging to their performances. While the film certainly relies heavily on technique, The Artist earns much of its charm, depth and heart from Dujardin and Bejo’s performances. It’s thanks to them that we not only find ourselves invested in Hollywood’s “changing of the guard” (though the outcome is obviously no shocker), but we care about what may or may not happen to these two characters.

Given that it’s a foreign film, is in black and white and is emulating an era that has gone the way of the dinosaur, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if most average moviegoers find themselves totally uninterested in this film. But I urge everyone that hasn’t already seen this to give it an open-minded shot. While it may not be for everyone, The Artist is a joyous love letter to the Silent Era that’s enlivened by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo’s tremendous performances and Michel Hazanavicius’s direction, combininb a sharp eye for technical detail and a strong love and knowledge of the history of cinema. The Artist may be supported by what some see as a gimmick, but Hazanavicius has taken that gimmick and turned it into something memorable.

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