As far as best picture goes at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26, it’s “Hugo” vs. “The Artist”, and never have two films been as equally deserving. But I must say, “The Artist” has far more audience appeal and does more with far less, both smaller budget and less star power.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: “The Artist” is a silent film –– more specifically it’s the silent film of all silent films –– about what happens when a modern director has the audacity to create something to sum up the silent film genre. This is the story of how film, rather literally, found its voice. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is Hollywood’s leading man. He’s got the charm of Clark Gable and the moves of Gene Kelly. The one thing he fears is the sound of his own voice (I wonder if that’ll be a driving plot point).
Up-and-coming star, Pepper Miller (Bérénice Bejo), arrives on the big screen just in time for the transition from silent to talkie. Irony lingers, as she owes her breakout role to George, who quickly turns into an entertainment relic. Rather than join the progress “party bus”, George puts all his money into one last silent film, hoping his own stardom will fill seats. Well, we wouldn’t have much dramatic tension if this worked out.
The film juxtaposes two famous performers in the midst of cinematic transition, all the while portraying quite a unique love story that only silent films know how to capture. This is a metafilm at its finest –– a genre piece that embodies the finest elements of Classic Hollywood. There’s no real criticism of Hollywood, just an idealization of the picture industry. With its multiple Oscar nominations, “The Artist” finally made its way out of the strictly L.A./New York theatre circuit, and it’s one of the few critically-acclaimed, low-box-office-earning films worth checking out. There’s plenty of haters out there simply because it’s a silent film, but such arguments are about as thin as avoiding foreign-language films because of subtitles. This is movie magic — the most fun you’ll have at the box office right now.
French director and writer Michel Hazanavicius, and Dujardin and Argentinian actress Bejo, ball step onto the scene with more comfort than most Hollywood veterans. Hazanavicius, who’s been around the French film block since the early ‘90s, creates a stunningly visual film that’s heartfelt, remarkably constructed and uniquely stylized. I imagine for many, this concept is a tough sell, but please believe me when I say Hazanavicius succeeds in keeping any potential snores or lagging moments at bay.
Dujardin constructs a captivating tribute to many of Hollywood’s top leading men without getting lost in replication. He’s got a winning smile and a refreshing charisma. According to the website, funnyordie.com, he’ll most assuredly be a villain in his next project (the joke being that he’s a rising European star), but for my money, he’s leading material through and through.
And then there’s Bejo. It’s hard not to fall in love with such an adorable supporting lady. She can act, but more than anything else, she has some of the most animated gestures. This is body acting on par with most dancers and professionals dedicated to portraying the physical form.
A silent film is nothing without a magnificent score, and Ludovic Bource knows just what to do. Far from mere mood setting, Bource’s score becomes a majestic reimagining of oral communication. Words mean little in a film based on tribute; we know what they’re saying, it’s how they say it (in this case, through a full orchestra) that matters most. On average, film scores don’t dominate every scene since dramatic tension can occur through silence. In fact, the more music in a film score, the worse the film normally is, but Bource has the challenging task of creating a film that can’t have many silent moments, and the final product is one of the best this year.
Ready to attack Oscar’s award categories for art direction, cinematography, costume design, film editing, original score, original screenplay, directing, male leading and female supporting roles and, of course, best motion picture, “The Artist” deserves all the hype, even if the box office numbers are low. Perhaps we’ll finally see more innovative and entertaining filmmaking reach larger audiences (and I’m not talking to you, “The Tree of Life”).
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