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Monday, February 13, 2012

Movie Review: "The Artist"

I know enough about movies to know that that I am supposed to like The Artist. But not enough to know exactly why.

Am I supposed to like it because it is Oscar-nominated? I have no respect for the Oscars, especially Best Picture. For example:

Rocky beat Taxi Driver
Kramer v. Kramer beat Apocalypse Now
Ordinary People beat Raging Bull
Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas
Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction
Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan
Gladiator beat Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Need I say more?

So why is The Artist worthy of notice? I guess maybe because the "art" of silent film, the communication of thought and emotion through expression and gesture rather than words, has traveled the well-worn route from brute necessity to nuanced accessory, like the salting and smoking of meat and fish.

And arrived just in time, perhaps, because many movies today have dialogue that is contrived, banal, and cliched, its sole purpose to propel a threadbare plot from one visual spectacle to another (e.g. Titantic, Avatar, Star Wars: Episodes I through III , and Transformers 1 through 20) With such dependably expendable dialogue, they might as well be silent films.

French actor Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a Rudolf Valentino/Douglas Fairbanks- esque silent screen star at the top of his game in 1927, as exemplified in a crisp opening sequence that takes place at the premiere of his latest film. This is followed in quick succession by his flowing through his Hollywood mansion with his wife (Penelope Ann Miller, looking like Lovee Howell from Gilligan's Island), and his stroll through the studio lot as the undisputed crown prince, much to the chagrin of studio boss Al Zimmer (the ever-dependable John Goodman, who can be comically bombastic even in a silent film).

Soon George's smooth path is fatefully jarred by his encounter with Peppy Miller, an innocently ambitious yet sweet up-and-coming actress who sweeps him off his feet during amusing multiple takes of a ballroom dance scene.  George is jarred even more with the advent of talking pictures, upon which Peppy becomes a rising star and George, in egomaniacal denial of the impending sound-filled future, relentlessly immerses himself in producing, directing and starring in his own silent epic. His marriage crumbles in a Citizen Kane-inspired montage of increasingly chilly breakfasts. His opus debuts the same night as Peppy's first starring role, and a path to redemption is paved for him...

Dujardin is charming as George, a dashing and handsome cross between Gene Kelly and a young Sean Connery. His resemblance to Connery previously served him well in The Artist director Michael Hazanavicius's clever spy movie satires OSS 117: Nest of Spies  and OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

Berenice Bejo, another favorite actor of Hazanavicius (and his wife), is entrancing and funny as Peppy, her stunning and exotic Argentinian looks a sharp, if anachronistic, contrast to her ingenue role. 

The leads are ably supported by familiar faces like Goodman, Miller, and the great character actor James Cromwell as George's faithful and wise chauffeur.

Am I supposed to like The Artist because it is daring in being a (mostly) silent film, with title cards and mood setting music? Much as I love movies, I have never been a fan of silent films. Like Peppy, I wrote them off as just too much exaggerated mugging. With the exception of some of Chaplin's classic routines, they could never hold my attention.

But now, re-imagined, this silent film reminds me of how behind our constant chatter, volumes are shared between us by a mere widening or narrowing of the eyes, a furrowed brow, a crooked smile, a wave of the hand, or a sudden quickening or slowing of our walking pace.

Or simply by not doing, or saying, anything at all.

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