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I had to see it to believe it, but Michel Hazanavicius‘s The Artist—a silent and black-and-white film that was acquired by The Weinstein Company for an awards run after it went over big at May’s Cannes Film Festival (where star Jean Dujardin was named best actor)—really could and should become the first predominantly silent movie to score a best picture Academy Award nomination since The Patriot in 1929. Per the hype out of Cannes, it is visually beautiful, deeply engaging, and irresistably charming—in other words, the stuff Oscar dreams are made of.
I finally caught up with The Artist last night at the Telluride Film Festival, where it is continuing a strategically planned run through virtually every festival of the awards season up through its theatrical release on November 23. Based on its reception here—virtually everywhere I turn festival organizers and attendees are hailing it to friends and strangers alike as this year’s most enjoyable and essential entry—that seems like the smartest way to spread word-of-mouth excitement about a film that would be an incredibly tough sell without it.
The Hollywood-set story is structured around a star-crossed (pun intended) romance, set against a backdrop of one the key turning points in the history of American cinema: when, in the late 1920s, the silent era came to a crashing halt thanks to the advent of sound and the “talkies” that resulted. George Valentin (Dujardin), a beloved silent-era superstar, meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s wife), a pretty commoner with her own dreams of stardom, through a happy accident, and sparks fly immediately — only, he is already married (his wife is played by Penelope Ann Miller, who, funnily enough, starred in another movie about the silent era, Chaplin, 19 years ago). Nevertheless, he helps her get her start in the business, not realizing that his own days in it are numbered. When the sound-era arrives, followed shortly thereafter by the Great Depression, his career disintegrates and hers begins to soar, and much of the rest of the film addresses how they handle these changes, while still popping in and out of each other’s lives.
I suspect that John Gilbert and Greta Garbo were direct inspirations for the characters of George and Peppy. Gilbert was a silent-era superstar whose high voice supposedly cost him his career, while Garbo, who got her start in silents and often played Gilbert’s love interest, went on to superstardom during the sound era — it was literally an event when audiences first heard her in a talkie, as posters for Anna Christie (1930) hailed: “Garbo Talks!” George looks just like Gilbert (note the slicked-back hair and pencil-thin mustaches), and, though Peppy does not resemble Garbo, she does say Garbo’s most famous line of all time, which she delivered in Grand Hotel (1932): “I want to be alone.”
I can’t say enough good things about Hazanavicius’s direction and Dujardin’s performance. The two Frenchmen — who previously collaborated on the OSS film franchise, a group of critically-acclaimed comedies in which Dujardin portrays a French secret agent who is sort of like James Bond, only a lot less polished — deserve the lion’s share of credit for this film’s success.
The fact that Hazanavicius managed to shoot this kind of intricate period piece in just 35 days is absolutely amazing, particularly because the performances, cinematography, editing, costumes, and score are all of the first order. Moreover, he made several technical decisions that greatly enhanced this film — most notably (spoiler alert), three moments in which sound is briefly heard in the film:
- During a dream sequence in which George finds that everyone and everything around him are capable of making sounds except himself, which perfectly conveys the sense of dread and doom that silent actors felt as sound came in and studios began replacing the old hams with new faces/suitable voices.
- When George walks out of his studio dressing room and sees a bunch of extras on the lot looking and laughing at him.
- At the very end of the film, when George, with Peppy’s help, reinvents himself in a way that will allow him to continue to work in the sound era. (Some found this ending to be unlikely and too cute, but I found it to be consistent with the “genre” of silent films, virtually all of which end on an upbeat note.)
(I was also struck by an encounter between George and Peppy on a staircase at a movie studio. He has just been let go, and she has just been hired. He is walking down and she is walking up. They pause for a brief chat — during which he is always shot from above and she from below, reinforcing their new positions — before moving in their separate directions. Perfect, subtle symbolism.)
Dujardin, meanwhile, couldn’t be better, conveying just the right degree of cockiness when he’s on top (he’s clearly full of himself but not unlikable) and just the right degree of fatalism when he’s down (you really feel for him as his life falls apart). Perhaps most impressively, he (and Bejo), neither of whom are professional dancers, perform several incredible dance numbers that, to my untrained eye, look every bit as impressive as anything that appeared in early sound-era musicals (at least one of which was famously sold as, “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!”).
Brace yourself for endless comparisons between The Artist and three cherished classic films that cover somewhat similar ground:
- A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976), in which a big star helps a young up-and-comer along, only to watch her fame explode as his own plummets, driving him to despair.
- Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which a former silent star proves unable to accept the reality that time — and the public — have marched on without her (and in which her faithful manservant does his best to preserve that illusion, just as James Cromwell does in The Artist).
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a sound movie about the decline of silent movies (in other words, the exact inverse of The Artist, which is a silent movie about the rise of talkies).
The bottom line, though, is that The Artist is really a film without an apt comparison. Over the last eight-plus decades, only a small handful of filmmakers have dared to make (and even fewer studios have dared to distribute) a silent movie of any sort, and most of those came in the years right after sound arrived, courtesy of high-profile artists who could afford to hold out longer than others — see Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (1930) and Tabu (1931), Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), and, most famously, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). The fact Hazanavicius has not only made a silent film in the sound era, but has made a great one, and done so no less than 82 years after talkies first hit, is an absolutely unparalleled achievement, and one that I believe will be cheered by many members of the Academy.
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