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CANNES — It’s a good bet that most contemporary directors would have a hard time pulling off a silent movie, so it’s all the more impressive what Michel Hazanavicius has wrought with The Artist, a real black-and-white silent in the 1.33 aspect ratio that takes place in Hollywood when silents were overtaken by talkies. A playful, lightly melancholy tale with A Star Is Born echoes about a young actress whose career takes off in sound pictures just as that of a veteran male star declines, this unusual Los Angeles-made French production is, by definition, a specialty item, perfect for festivals and buff enclaves worldwide but a tough proposition commercially outside France, where the director and stars are household names by virtue of the OSS capers.
A mustachioed and preening Jean Dujardin engagingly incarnates George Valentin, a vain, athletic star in the Douglas Fairbanks mode who specializes in swashbuckling romantic adventures. In 1927, at the lavish premiere of his latest extravaganza (an event shot at the Orpheum Theater in downtown L.A.), the married star takes a fancy to a pretty girl in the crowd, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who gets her picture in the papers and very soon a small role in the next Valentin production, even though their relationship never progresses beyond mutual attraction.
Although everything in both the films-within-a-film and the “real” movie looks a bit too crisp and clean, lacking the soft-focus close-ups so prevalent at the time, Hazanavicius and his key collaborators — cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and American production designer Laurence Bennett and costume designer Mark Bridges — succeed in the important matter of approximating the general spirit and flavor of some late silent pictures, notably their energy, brio and direct emotional appeal.
Similarly, Ludovic Bource’s continuous score might be more elaborate and ambitious than the orchestral music that normally accompanied major silent features in big city engagements, but its vigor and imagination provide Artist with a crucial boost that amplifies its numerous mood swings.
Preparing to switch entirely to talkies in 1929, Kinograph Studios boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) offers Valentin a private look at the new format, but the star rejects it out of hand and recklessly proceeds with his own self-financed silent adventure, which is doomed to failure. By the time the stock market crash hits that October, Valentin is washed up, just as Peppy Miller’s infectious youthful appeal is taking the country by storm.
Valentin’s downfall is complete: His long-suffering wife (Penelope Ann Miller) leaves him, he’s forced to auction his personal effects, he dismisses his ever-faithful chauffeur (a subtle and fine James Cromwell) and, in a frenzy reminiscent of the room-destroying outburst in Citizen Kane, he trashes his prints of his films, finally lighting a match to them. His life is saved only by the efforts of his exceptionally talented last remaining friend, his clever little performing dog of the type so common in the silent era.
What Valentin doesn’t know, however, is that Peppy has always remained loyal in her heart, so when it counts — and in the spirit of the title of her new film, Guardian Angel — she is there for him. During this climactic stretch, when Valentin hits his deepest despair, Hazanavicius and Bource daringly choose to explicitly employ Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from Vertigo, which is dramatically effective in its own right but is so well known that it yanks you out of one film and places you in the mind-set of another. Surely some sort of reworked equivalent would have been a better idea.
Still most immediately conjuring the image of a Sean Connery lite, which worked so well for him in the OSS duo, Dujardin also by turns triggers physical impressions of Fredric March, who starred in the first A Star Is Born, and John Gilbert, one of most famous silent luminaries to stumble in talkies. One minor mystery that could have been clarified by one additional inter-title is whether Valentin simply disdains sound films or might be hampered by a foreign accent.
The slim and chic Bejo is entirely winning as the public’s darling who never forgets who provided her big break, and Goodman is perfect as the cigar-chomping studio chief who obviously loves his job.
Filmed on studio stages as well as on old Hollywood streets, Artist evinces unlimited love for the look and ethos of the 1920s as well for the style of the movies. The filmmakers clearly did their homework and took great pleasure in doing so, an enjoyment that is passed along in ample doses to any viewer game for their nifty little conceit.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Sales: Wild Bunch
Production: Thomas Langmann presents a La Petite Reine, Studio 37, La Classe Americaine, JD Prod, France3 Cinema, Jouror Production-uFilms co-production
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell, Ed Lauter
Director-screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius
Producer: Thomas Langmann
Executive producers: Daniel Delume, Antoine De Cazotte, Richard Middleton
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Laurence Bennett
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editors: Anne-Sophie Bion, Michel Hazanavicius
Music: Ludovic Bource