"The Artist" Deserves Accolades & Awards

by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
Scene from Academy Award contender, The Artist
Scene from Academy Award contender, The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist”

is a film about silent film that is itself a silent film. How amazing is it that a silent film could be released in 2011 and garner the amazing critical reception that Hazanivicius’s has? It’s been on a seemingly nonstop roll, receiving multiple critics’ prizes for Best Picture among others and is currently the frontrunner to take home the Best Picture Oscar come February. Now that the film has finally gotten a wider release, it’s time for the rest of the country to see whether it’s worthy of those accolades.

“The Artist” tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a big, successful silent film star, whose films play to packed theaters and much applause. The year is 1927 and a new form of cinema is beginning to emerge: the talkie. Upon sampling this new phenomenon, George merely laughs it off, thinking that people won’t go for it. However, the studio he works for eventually decides to end production on silent films altogether, focusing on the rising trend of talking pictures. With George’s refusal to adapt to this new trend, he’s left without a job, which becomes increasingly hard on him with his marital troubles and the infamous stock market crash of 1929.

Tied into George’s story is that of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who quite literally bumps into George after one of his premieres. Peppy’s ambition is to become an actress, which leads her to audition for a small part as an extra in a film. She lands a role as a dancer in a film that George just happens to be in, and from there, she continues to get bigger and bigger parts until she becomes quite famous. While George’s stardom has fallen as a relic of the past, Peppy’s is on the rise as a new breakout sensation.

Hazanavicius has perfectly captured the look and feel of the silent era with “The Artist.” Everything from the emotional, and sometimes toe-tapping, score by Ludovic Bource to the amazing production design by Laurence Bennett gives you the experience of what it must have been like going to the theater back during the silent age.

The real highlights of the film though are the excellent performances from Dujardin and Bejo. As a silent film, the roles require actors who are able to display all emotions with their face and body language, overemphasizing in places to get their point across. Dujardin, who won Best Actor earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, shows his excellent comic timing as well as his soft, vulnerable side using only these to great effect. Likewise, Bejo brings out her character’s determination and sympathetic nature quite well, particularly with her eyes.

The story is an interesting one that feels somewhat similar to “Singin’ in the Rain,” except this time around we have a character who doesn’t even want to try this new method of filmmaking. It’s interesting to compare the two, particularly in scenes where the new technology is first being used. When George sees it for the first time, he’s the only one laughing in a room of studio execs who want to pursue it. He laughs because he finds it silly, whereas in “Rain,” everyone laughs at Gene Kelly and co.’s attempt at it because they haven’t gotten it quite right yet, leading to hilarious results.

The few minor complaints I have about it are that the story feels somewhat stretched out over its 100-minute runtime and you can tell exactly where it’s going from pretty early on, especially if you’ve seen the trailer. However, this doesn’t detract too much from simply enjoying the amazing experience. There’s a lot to enjoy here that makes up for the simplified nature of the story, such as the performances already mentioned above and an intriguing main character.

George is a fascinating character mainly because of this rigid determination to keep things the way they are without even giving the talkies a shot. He believes that people come to see his pictures to see him, not to hear him speak. He’s unable to accept change, whereas everyone around him is welcoming this wonderful new invention, including the public, who form long lines to see the latest Peppy Miller talkie. Meanwhile, a film he has written, directed, produced and starred in in an attempt to show his old bosses that the public still wants silent pictures has a dismal number of attendees.

The film has a decent mixture of drama and comedy. It’s even been nominated for the Best Comedy Golden Globe, though it seems to be much more of a drama than a comedy, especially since it deals with a star trying to get by in an era of change where he’s faced with emotional and financial depression. There are a few light comedic moments however, particularly involving George’s well-trained dog/ co-star.

As far as getting that Best Picture Oscar, it may well happen and it wouldn’t be a bad choice to represent the year, though I have to say that I’ve seen a few better films this year. It would be the first time a silent feature took the top prize since the Oscars began back in 1929 where “Wings” took home top honors. Aside from being a pretty good film, it reminds us just how far we’ve come in cinema since those early days, and how the technology is always developing further. Silent to sound was just the first of many upgrades and even now there are more than likely many more still to come. 3.5/4 stars.

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