Oscar Movie Month: "The Artist" Review

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Hollywood 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. The advent of the talkies will sound the death knell for his career and see him fall into oblivion. In contrast, for the young extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), it seems that the sky’s the limit - major movie stardom awaits. This silent film tells the story of their interlinked destinies.
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Rating: PG-13
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2012
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Genre: Comedy / Drama / Romance

Multiple Oscar nominee and winner, "The Artist" remains surprising from the beginning to the end. This is one of those rare movies that not only can be labeled a creative feast, but it also leaves the viewer in awe long after the film ends.

A black-and-white silent film (though shot in color and later converted), "The Artist" would seem inadequate for modern audiences. Director Michel Hazanavicius' desire to make a silent movie was indeed met with much doubt because many wondered about the worth of a silent movie in the 21st century. It turns out, however, that the audience, saturated with convoluted plots, boasting action and an overflow of words on all channels, can greatly enjoy the subtle depth of a silent movie and the character development that it allows. "The Artist" pushes all the right buttons for its intended audience.

The plot is fairly simple and places the viewers' attention where it should be: on its characters. In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie superstar is at the top of his career. He accidentally plays a role in the birth of a new star when he graciously takes photographs with a beautiful young woman, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who happens to bump into him at the premiere of his latest movie. Later on, he falls in love with her, while she is only an extra on the set, and helps her with a few tricks that could make her more memorable as an actress.

George Valentin is, however, witness to the changing of times. The movie world is taken over by talking pictures, and silent movies fall into oblivion. The artist is reluctant to play in a "talkie," and the viewer is left to guess his motivations. Peppy Miller becomes the uncontested star of the new movie era, while George Valentin fails horribly producing his own silent movie, loses his fortune and, in the end, almost his will to live.

Saved by his dog from a fire, Valentin had meant to destroy his private collection of movies, but he awakens in Peppy Miller's house. The actress becomes his saving grace (against his will), and the two end up acting together in a musical set to revive Valentin's career, a beautiful compromise between sound and silence.

The final scene finds the two dancing while shooting takes for their musical. For a few moments, "The Artist" is graced with sounds and, in his one and only audible line in the entire movie, George Valentin reveals he has a French accent.

It is a rare treat when viewers are forced to rearrange all the newly achieved system of motivations after watching the last seconds of the movie. Usually by then, the conflict is resolved, the motivations are well-known and the need for understanding satisfied. This does not happen with "The Artist." The last scene brings the viewer a eureka moment and likely a slap on the forehead. The French accent may have been all along the reason for George Valentin's reluctance in tackling talking pictures.

Michel Hazanavicius is known to have said that mystery is the prerogative of black-and-white silent movies. Never is this more obvious than in these last scenes, when silence turns to sound. Characters get suddenly more mundane, the need for guesswork disappears, and the viewer is almost forced to recognize the beauty of the lost silence. If nostalgia for this era of black-and-white movies is the all-present feeling in "The Artist," the last scenes cleverly explain this longing for quieter, if not simpler, times.

This is not the only smart trick that Hazanavicius masterly uses to make his artistic point. When George Valentin is forced to face his fears of "talkies," sound receives monstrous dimensions in his mind. He (along with the viewers) can hear the sound of a leaf falling or that of a glass touching the surface of a table. It is as if the world wakes up to an unstoppable avalanche of sounds that the actor cannot escape any longer.

A beautiful aspect of the movie is that there are no merely negative characters in "The Artist," only characters who find themselves in difficult situations or others that are not yet entirely developed. Maybe this is what makes the viewer love the movie with the kind of tenderness one reserves for the finest things: "The Artist" shows the best in people, despite their little quirks. It does not force the viewer to face the evil, which is always a disturbing experience. A series of could-have-beens grace the movie: Clifton could have deserted Valentin, his employer, for not being paid, but he is a mountain of devotion; Peppy Miller could have become too full of herself, but she remains candid and generous. This is a film about heroes in the most atypical way.

"The Artist" proves the power and intensity of image and how much can be achieved in the absence of sound. Interestingly enough, the absence of sound makes the viewer more involved. Audiences have to guess characters' motivations, dialogue or interaction. A masterful and charming cinematic piece, "The Artist" is a definite must-see.

Rating: 4 out of 5