Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman. Runtime: 1h 40 min. Released: November 25, 2011.
When I sat down to watch The Artist, I wasn’t sure if I’d love it based on the first scene, as our main character George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), an egomaniacal silent movie star in 1927, stands behind the screen and watches a packed theatre experience his newest film. With it being a silent film, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if this will work for me for the whole movie.” But it really did work for me as a throwback and celebration of classic Hollywood.
George meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and the film is about their relationship as George battles his own ego, as a silent star dealing with the future of “talkies” where he believes no one wants to hear him speak in a film and is hesitant to the change.
By 20 minutes into The Artist after I had gotten used to the silence of it, it had completely won me over. That had a lot to do with Ludovic Bource’s outstanding score (the “George Valentin” track is a favourite of mine here). I’ve been trying to focus more on score in films and this is the film for me to do that with because, of course, it’s a silent film and it’s the easiest thing to focus on. It swept me away and without such a strong score, I don’t think this film would work. It made it an experience, even if I was just watching it on a 40-inch screen.
Another scene that just hooked me was the scene where George is in his dressing room and objects around him start to have exaggerated sound but no one could hear him talk. I thought that was so effective, especially how it leads into the Kinograph Studios boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) telling him that talking pictures are the future and he’ll be left behind. Also, that one scene where Peppy is being interviewed and George’s back is towards her, as a parallel for him being the past in the silent era and her being the future for “talkies” is my favourite shot in the film and one that will stick with me.
The most impressive thing about this is how great Michel Hazanavicius’ writing is here (he also directs and co-edits the film). He tells the story so damn well with just music, maybe 15-20 inter-titles throughout and all character action. Some modern films have trouble competently telling its story with a lot of dialogue. The Artist’s story is simple enough, but it’s creative and charming. The characters also feel very real. It’s also made possible by the phenomenal physical performances.
Before the human actors, I’d also be remiss not to mention George’s scene-stealing Parson Russell Terrier, who brings a lot of comedy to the film. Jean Dujardin is charming as hell as George, smiling his way through the film, and is more than effective in the dramatic scenes, too. Bérénice Bejo is also charming as Peppy as she embraces her stardom. Her performance is still physical but her character is the one in the “talkies” so she spends a lot of the time talking where we can’t hear her. Their chemistry is what makes this shine and they’re both individually great. Bejo hasn’t done any English films yet, so if I must watch more French films to see her act, I’ll happily do it. I’ll do the same for Dujardin, too, though he appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men but has gone back to French films since then.
This is a French film that is just about as American as a film can get, celebrating the silent era of Hollywood and convincingly recreating it. It feels like it could have been made in the 20’s, because of two stars who feel like they were born in the wrong generation, especially how well they do their dances and that Fred Astaire-esque dance scene. John Goodman’s physical acting also makes him feel like he could have been an actor in the 1920’s – he plays the cigar-chomping studio head persona so well it would have been a disservice to audiences not to cast him in this role.
My only vague complaint here is that some scenes could have used some talking, especially a scene with Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star on Spongebob) as a police officer. I didn’t get what he was saying because I can’t read lips very well, but after looking up the meaning of this scene it works well. Still, if they talk in these moments it defeats the purpose of a silent picture and there are inter-titles at moments where you need to really understand the story.
They don’t make films like this anymore and what Hazanavicius does with this is just special and it’s made me want to seek out more silent films (maybe even watch some of the Charlie Chaplin ones I’ve always been intending to). I think that’s what he just intended to do, to make a great film that feels like Old Hollywood so you’d seek out films you may not typically watch. And surely, The Artist isn’t something I’d typically watch but I totally fell for it. It’s a refreshing (silent) film in a world that doesn’t stop talking.