Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Blogorium Review: The Artist

 I want to start my review for Michael Hazanavicius's film, The Artist, but correcting two assumptions I had about the film. Coming in without knowing very much about The Artist, I had the following general impressions:

 1. It was French.
 2. It was some variety of "art" film commenting on... well, something.

 To be honest, I was only vaguely aware of The Artist until two weeks ago; I'd heard it mentioned once or twice and then it started winning awards. I thought it was French because the writer / director and lead actor were both French (the lead actress is from Argentina, but let's pretend I was ignorant and assumed they were all French for this hypothesis). That made sense. It was in black and white and I had no idea what the film was about so let's just say I thought it was maybe one of those New York, New York / A Star is Born kind of movies about relationships between famous people that ends up being flawed and tragic despite their "happy-go-lucky" on-screen appearance (by this point I knew it had something to do with movie-making, partially because an article online mentioned that "movies about movies don't win Best Picture"*).

 Neither of which is true, it turns out. Well, the director / writer (Hazanavicius) and the star (Jean Dujardin) ARE French**, but Bérénice Bejo is not, and neither are John Goodman, Missi Pyle, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and (briefly) Malcolm McDowell. That was the first surprise: seeing their names in the credits. It's a testament to how unprepared I was coming in to The Artist, which is unlike the Cap'n but in a lot of ways a wonderful way to be caught unawares by a charming film about the early days of cinema.

 George Valentine (Dujardin) is a star of the silent era, the kind who loves to showboat for his adoring fans and who has a dog sidekick (played by a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie). His antics upstage co-star Constance (Pyle) and wear on the patience of Kinograph Studio Chief Al Zimmer (Goodman), and his wife Doris (Miller) doesn't take kindly to his public flirtation with Peppy Miller (Bejo), a fan on her way to being a star of the silver screen, but what does George care? He has his trusty chauffeur / butler Clifton (Cromwell) and legions of fans to see his feats of derring-do.

 And then along comes sound. George scoffs at it and wants nothing to do with the gimmick, but when Kinograph moves to an "all talkies" production slate, the silent heart-throb finds himself on the outside looking in. His attempt to write, direct, and star in one last epic (Tears of Love) ends his career while Peppy's star is rising. She sings, dances, and more importantly embraces talking pictures. George lets his pride get in the way of their budding romance (it's fair to point out that Doris kicks him to the curb by this point) - he was at least partially responsible for her film debut - and as she ascends, the continues to plummet into despair.

 So maybe it sounds like I wasn't so "wrong" about the second assumption, but I actually was. Despite what that reads like, The Artist remains an upbeat, charming picture chronicling two stars during a change in eras. It's amiable without being inconsequential, fun without seeming trivial. Like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, it wears its heart on its sleeve and wants nothing more than to be a throwback to movies without rampant cynicism. Somewhere along the way we forgot that those movies can be more than mindless fluff, so The Artist stands out in that regard, even if I was totally wrong about what I thought I was about to see (and apparently several other people I know).

Speaking of which, The Artist, like Drive, is getting some guff from audiences who don't seem to be aware that it's a silent film. Like, almost totally a silent film (save for two instances used in a clever way to make you chuckle, or, if you prefer, feel whimsy) with intertitles and music for most of the film. In fact, it's a little surprising when the organ / orchestra score goes away and "Pennies from Heaven" plays because it's been a while since you heard a human voice. It's not as though I haven't seen my fair share of silent films, but I don't remember Chaplin's "Nonsense Song" in Modern Times being quite as jarring as "Pennies from Heaven" is in The Artist.

 Hazanavicius also has some tricks up his sleeve to demonstrate the passage of time in The Artist: as the film moves forward a decade or so, so too do the camera techniques, choices of angles, and editing tricks. Later in the film he starts throwing in some Orson Welles-style camera trickery, and finds a way to sneak in some film noir venetian blind action in a scene where you wouldn't expect them at all. It reminded me a little bit of the way that Martin Scorsese utilized different film stocks for The Aviator as a way to move from one era to the other in Howard Hughes life. I should point out that it isn't in a "look at what I'm doing here" way on Hazanavicius's part, but more of a "I see what you're doing there" followed with a grin.

 The Artist reminded me a lot of Sunset Boulevard by way of Singin' in the Rain, which is every bit as impossible as that sounds but it does it very well. The ups and downs of George Valentin's career are loosely reminiscent of Norma Desmond's, but without the cynicism that Billy Wilder laced Sunset Boulevardwith. It has that sunny optimism of Singin' in the Rain, and the jokes about silent-era Hollywood going "talkie," just without the talking. There is, in fact, a scene you'll recognize from Singin' in the Rain, but without the ability to hear Missi Pyle's voice while Jean Dujardin laughs out loud at her delivery. It's a conceit I guess some people don't take kindly to - we're missing half of the joke because we can't hear what they hear, or something.I'll leave it up to you to determine what (if anything) is being said about audience expectations.

 I feel like I'm doing The Artist a disservice by saying it made me smile or surprised me or that it's "pleasant." The cynic in me says that's damning the film with faint praise, but the true is that The Artist is a really, really well made film with unbridled optimism and enthusiasm. If you're one of those people that CANNOT get past a movie where you don't hear anyone talk for ninety minutes, you're going to miss out on something special, but I guess New Year's Eve is still playing somewhere. Fans of cinema are going to have a fine time watching The Artist and dissecting the camera placement throughout the film. Silent Era film buffs in particular are going to go gaga over this film, and I think if you're willing to go in open for whatever The Artist has in store for you, it's a ride well worth taking.

 * I wish I could find that... I think it was on CNN but I'm not so sure anymore. That is actually true though - I checked and despite my misgivings, I'll be damned if a film ABOUT Hollywood and show business ever own Best Picture.
 ** I guess technically it IS French, but it doesn't FEEL like any French cinema I've seen, and I have been exposed to more than just the New Wave

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