In 1929, actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a bona fide matinee idol with many adoring fans. While working on his latest film, George finds himself falling in love with an ingenue named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and, what's more, it seems Peppy feels the same way. But, George is reluctant to cheat on his wife with the beautiful young actress. The growing popularity of sound in movies further separates the potential lovers, as George's career begins to fade while Peppy's star rises.
In the year 1927 the film industry underwent a drastic change. Up until this point all movies were silent, accompanied by music performed by a live orchestra or non-diegetically played in theatres while the picture appeared on screen. The release of The Jazz Singer in October of 1927 ushered in a new wave of cinema, the "talkie." A talkie is what those in the current modern age of cinema consider to be any film--as sound from dialogue, music, and the like are synchronized on screen with the performances, etc. For audiences in the late-1920s it was a magnificent invention and an exciting prospect. For the screen actors of silent films it had disastrous results as many could not make the transition from silent film star to appearing in talkies; a situation similar to radio personalities with the advent of Television.
The Artist is a portrait of a silent film stars decline due to the advent of the talkie. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a famous silent film star for his serial-type movies where he plays the same archetype of a character over and over again, in a different location. For example, A Russian Affair where George played a spy was released before his next project, A German Affair where he plays, to no ones surprise, a spy once again. The audience loves George and he loves being a movie star. But George thinks the idea of a talkie is ridiculous, and doomed for failure. Let go by his boss, Studio Head Zimmer (John Goodman), because Zimmer wants new faces for a new era of cinema, George decides he will make his own silent picture and show all of Hollywood that the audience still wants silent movies. The predictability of what happens to George's movie upon release is obvious, it is a flop. Broke, kicked out of the house by his unhappy wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) who wants a divorce, and without any career prospects George Valentin is a man in the midst of a crisis.
While things look downright dreadful for George they are looking up for Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo); and she has George to thank for her stardom. After a fate filled meeting at one of George's premieres, and thereafter her being cast as an extra in one of his pictures, there is an undeniable chemistry between Peppy and George. The sparks fly on camera when they dance together but George is reluctant to cheat on his wife and the would-be affair never occurs. Peppy goes on to become a huge star in talkies, while George suffocates in his own pride. All is not lost for these forlorn lovers, as time drifts by, the years passing, yet neither one of them ever forgetting the other or the connection they shared. This is the heart of The Artist, the romance between Peppy and George because it is Peppy that will ultimately save George from ruin, and George who set the events in motion for her to be able to do just that.
The Artist is a rarity for audiences today simply because it is a silent picture. The story is as old as time, as is the romance. It would be extreme to call it gimmicky as it is a great piece of filmmaking with a wonderful score by Ludovic Bource, and exceptional performances by all involved. The Artist is plagued by its own devices, though. The running time is far too long for a silent picture, focusing much too long of a time on George's descent. It also fails to deliver a twist in the end, or at any point in the story. The predictable nature of the story grows tedious for the viewer as there is nothing to look forward to or to be surprised by in the film. What it does well is recreating the magic of a silent moving picture. From the opening titles, in all of their graininess, with bold lettering and the credits rolling before the film begins, and being shot in full-frame, it immediately transports the viewer to the time before the talkies.
The Artist is fully aware of its nostalgia to the point of self-reflexivity throughout the film. The actors appear to know on more than one occasion that the camera is present, the fourth wall nearly broken time and again. This does not hurt the film overall, as it provides many moments of humor for the viewer, but it does take away from the feeling of being in a silent picture. The lack of enough title cards is also an issue; silent pictures always showed the actors talking, you simply could not hear them. The Artist relies heavily on reading lips, or ignoring dialogue altogether, when as a viewer you crave more title cards to set the events in motion and to portray character emotion.
Fans of silent pictures will undoubtedly fall in lust with The Artist because of the nostalgia it evokes. Faults aside it is an incredibly well done film that manages to grasp the attention of even the most easily distracted viewer. The Artist is a treasure for the modern age of cinema, and a welcome relief from the overblown pictures audiences have become so accustomed to as of late.
Without words it at all comes down to the facial expressions, the body language, and timing of both and more by the actors of a silent film to make it work. The acting in The Artist is flawless. Basically unknown actors in America, Berenice Bejo (Peppy) and Jean Dujardin (George) are incredible; they appear to have the talent made for silent movie stardom. Peppy is just that, peppy, in her performance, and delightfully cute and funny to watch. She oozes the girl-next-door movie star aura and one cannot help but fall in love with her, fake mole and all. Dujardin's George has the emotional highs and lows to manage, all without words. His face is a marvel of expressions, from his wide grin that makes his eyes sparkle to the dark, haunting looks he gives when faced with his darkest moments. George Valentin as a character is nothing without Dujardin's talent. It is the pairing of these actors that makes The Artist a success; they even dance the part well when it calls for them to do so.
There are well-known actors in the film as well, John Goodman's Studio Head is hilarious when he is being the tough guy. His spongy face showing the boisterous nature of his words without having to hear them, or his sincere frustration when being bullied by his stars. Smaller roles fill the story too. James Cromwell is wonderful as George's butler Clifton; a definite Hobson to his Arthur. Penelope Ann Miller plays George's unhappy wife, and the simple twirling of her pearls and glance his way is all she has to do to make an impression. The Artist is a dream film for an actor because it relies solely on the actors ability to express without using words. Every actor in The Artist need not prove their level of talent after working on this film, their reputations of being extremely talented are cemented.
November 23, 2011