It’s debatable as to who faced the greatest challenge: the filmmakers of 1927’s The Jazz Singer, having to convince early 20th century producers/studios to opt for the risky idea of synchronizing spoken dialogue with film, or filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (pronounced ha-za-na-VEE-shooz) of The Artist, having to convince early 21st century producers/studios to opt for the reverse. Happily, Hazanavicius found a backer amid the polite no-thank-you’s, and a cinematic star was born.
Amid our CGI and 3D world, The Artist stands alone, a silent film shot in gloriously-modulated shades of black and white. A valentine to Singin’ in the Rain and yes, A Star is Born, Hazanavicius painstakingly crafts a vision that is utterly unique. From the opening fantasy sequence, with protagonist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) undergoing a stylized lobotomy with the intent of forcing him to talk (à la Fritz Lang’s brain transference scene from Metropolis), to a fond tour of old Hollywood (filming at the backlots at Paramount and Warner Bros., Mary Pickford’s house in L.A.’s exclusive Hancock Park, and early movie palaces such as downtown L.A.’s Orpheum Theater), to a clever montage in which George’s ears experience untoward audio, this is a film that can’t be tuned out.
The Artist speaks to a far greater tale than that of a celebrated silent movie star who suddenly finds himself unemployable upon his refusal to adapt to the newfangled era of the talkies. Because, silent or not, George’s fall resonates with us all. Finding ourselves faced with obsolescence as modern times pass us by, or aging in a world that fanatically celebrates youth, or doubting the possibility of falling in love too far down the path, this story mixes humor with heart and soul, all the while shot in a style that is as nimble and diverse as Dujardin himself.
As winner of Cannes’ Best Actor award, Dujardin owns this movie. Having previously worked with Hazanavicius on two spy spoofs portraying lead character “OSS 117” (a clownish version of “007”), here he combines the athletic grace of a Gene Kelly with the comedic antics of a Cary Grant and the emotional range of a Ronald Colman. Simply put: His performance in The Artist is about to make Dujardin a household name. The same might be said for his co-star, the charismatic Bérénice Béjo as eager starlet-to-be Peppy Miller. While Béjo assiduously studied the films of Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich in order to capture the essence of a 1920s-30s film star, she added a spark that is at once appealing, humorous and tender, conveying a far warmer spirit than her actress predecessors.
Actually, all the players are impressive (including an exuberant John Goodman as the studio head, a stoic James Cromwell as Valentin’s chauffeur/right-hand man and a Jean Hagen-like Missi Pyle), particularly due to the fact that they were deprived of speech … in effect, removing one of the primary tools of their craft. It is interesting to note, however, that given the simply-structured elements of Hazanavicius’ melodrama, the actors’ body language and facial reactions adroitly convey it all. (Quoting Hazanavicius on writing this story sans dialogue, “If there are too many new developments … too many characters, a complex plot, you just can’t do it visually.”)
Technically, the filmmakers had to recreate an old world relying on contemporary tools. Today’s black-and-white filmstock being too sharp, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman had to use 500 ASA color film that bespoke a grainer look. He then subsequently employed multiple filters to produce the diffused whites, blacks and grays that the movie demanded. The filmmakers also shot at 22 frames per second rather than the usual 24, resulting in an ever-so-slightly caffeinated speed effectively suggesting a style akin to the old-time flickers. As actor Cromwell explains: “You have to adjust to the slightly faster film speed by sustaining the moment a fraction longer to allow the audience to ‘read’ the intention and adjust their perception.”
Between the film’s directing, writing, acting, staging, cinematography and technical feats, we are left with a toothsome irony: Echoing the fact that The Artist is without words, the concordant praise calls for such effusive superlatives as to render both written and verbal expression mute. And that’s saying something …
Rating on a scale of 5 exhilarated yet tongue-tied standing ovations: 5
Release date: November 25, 2011
Written and Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle
Running Time: 100 minutes