‘The Artist’: A Silent Masterpiece

The Artist (2011)
Written & Directed by Michel Hazanvicius
100 mins.

***1/2 (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Basically a shoo-in for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this Sunday, The Artist is a magical, fun, one-of-a-kind movie experience.  French director Michel Hazanvicius (the OSS 117 films) breaks into American cinema with this magnificent black-and-white, silent film unlike any you have ever seen.  A tribute to classic Hollywood films that all audiences can enjoy.

Hollywood, 1927.  Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a swashbuckling screen icon, in the tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.  He is on top of the world, adored by critics and fans alike, though he is quite self-absorbed.  While on the red carpet at a premiere, he bumps into – literally – the beautiful, young Peppy Miller (Bernice Bejo).  In a wonderfully staged meet-cute, Peppy kisses Valentin on the cheek, and they smile and pose for the photographers, flashbulbs popping like shining stars.

The next day, the headline in Variety reads: “Who’s That Girl?” with their photo on the front page.  Peppy is soon hired as a back-up dancer for the studio.  Then comes the innovation of sound in film.  Talkies become all the rage, and the silent films are left behind.  Peppy rockets to stardom, becoming Hollywood’s newest it-girl, while Valentin’s star falls into obscurity, and his life begins to spin out of control.

The Artist is a once-in-a-generation kind of film, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it.  The black-and-white photography, coupled with the (almost) silent nature of the film (of course, there is music), suggest a somewhat dream-like experience.  Dujardin’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing, drawing the perfect amount of expression in every scene; he really seems like a silent film star.  Bejo is also perfect as Peppy, her wide mouth, accentuated eyes, traditional beauty and flapper vestements make her the ideal actress for the role.  Rounding out the cast are veteran actors John Goodman (The Big Lebowski), James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential), and Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way).

Hazanvicius re-creates a time and place that we all know from history, and he does it perfectly.  The Artist really captures the magic of an era in filmmaking that (in my opinion) Martin Scorsese’s Hugo did not do as well.  Though the film is predictable at times (there are a few surprises), I found myself not caring at all, because it was still so enjoyable.  Dujardin is likely to win Best Actor on Sunday, and the film will surely win Best Picture.

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