By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Oh, woe to the very occasional moviegoer who, to please his or her significant other, chooses Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” as the sacrificial offering. While it could turn out great and engender a life-changing renaissance, odds are the experience will be met with, “Huh? What was that? Couldn’t they afford sound?” The thing is, it’s silent.
As such, cineastes, dilettantes, aspiring film students and fellow directors will find much to mull here après theater, preferably at a cozy café that has witty, framed needlepoint sayings hung like, “Intellectual Spoken Here.” I’ll take the side of those who deem this a fine change of pace, a novel experiment gone right, and have a coffee regular, please.
My esteemed challenger will of course respectfully caution that perhaps it’s my jaded tastes at play, inviting me to be taken in by a gimmickry redolent of the emperor’s new clothes. “But no, dear Yorick,” I will kindly respond, “I, too, have pondered that chance, and because sure ‘tis not so, will risk the slings and arrows concomitant to my decision.”
Supporting my stance, I will present the good evidence, beginning with Hazanavicius’s exquisitely evoked reproduction of the silent era, both reasonably accurate and a sweet paean to that time afore. While it was technology being a tad sluggish that was originally responsible for silent film, “The Artist” tacitly suggests a far more romantic reason.
Maybe it was a needed balance, the Roaring Twenties being so cacophonous that a few hours at the Bijou, muted of all but music and the ooohs and ahs of its rapt audience, forged a proper poetry for the age. Apologists for the medium might also say that, as with books, but with yet one more evincing sense, it prompts one to cultivate the imagination.
Act I, Scene I: Witness the splendor and exuding joy of George Valentin’s life and career. It is Hollywood, 1927, and he is the cat’s pajamas, the penultimate matinee idol. Handsome, devil may care, a presence the lens can’t get enough of, he makes one box office hit after another. Well, that is, he and his companion on and off screen, The Dog.
If you decide nothing else about this bound to be controversial, almost masterpiece, it’s that Uggie, the nine-year-old Jack Russell Terrier who plays George’s canine sidekick, deserves an Oscar for his endearing supporting role. He’s already won The Palm Dog Prize, awarded each year at the Cannes Film Festival by British journalist Toby Rose.
The Dog, an empathic little soul with the sensitivity of a tuning fork, perceives all…including the one sadness George, fabulously interpreted by Jean Dujardin, quietly harbors. His cold-as-steel wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), is a joyless harridan who can’t be relied on to support our title character. Too bad, because tough times are coming.
The irony here is that, for all its retro inventiveness, “The Artist” tells an old story, though probably never before related in speechless mode. It’s about the advent of talkies. But the only thing George can hear is the death knell for silent film. Surely old sport it’s just a fad, don’t you think? Never mind for now why George can’t make the transition.
The studio drops him. So, in a desperate last stab to salvage his stardom, he self-produces a silent film. But what’s now the artistic equivalent of the dodo bird writhes and plummets in anguish. Then, to add insult to injury and turning the scenario into a total tragedy, the market crashes. You can fill in the resultant fallout. Ah hubris, you are paid.
About a year passes. Cast from glory to circumstances almost threadbare, he has been abandoned, save for The Dog and Clifton, his loyal chauffeur, smartly acted by James Cromwell. In his shabby, one room apartment, George asks “How long since I’ve paid you, Clifton?” The servant answers, “One year, sir.” But wait, there may be a bright spot.
Sweetly exacted by Bérénice Bejo, she is the fittingly named Peppy Miller, the ingénue turned-It Girl who George kindly gave a little boost toward fame back in the day. But to complicate matters, it’s not just gratitude that spirits her desire to help. Enter stage right, Cupid. As pride is a double-edged sword, lending a hand will present a sticky wicket.
Why? Read between the subtitles. That’s where Mr. Hazanavicius astutely pours all the drama and philosophy. Challenging his obvious talent for narrative, he has doubtlessly culled the finer points of silent movie storytelling to beautifully exercise nuances of this art long dormant. Thus, at least in this case, “The Artist” proves that silence is golden.
“The Artist,” rated PG-13, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Michel Hazanavicius, and stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell and Uggie. Running time: 100 minutes
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