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Movie Review: The Artist

'Artist' follows rules to explore bounds of silence
The Artist
Genre: Romance
Running Time: 100 min
Release Date: 2011-11-25
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

By a happy chance, two of the most satisfying movies of 2011 are an American homage to French silent films and a French homage to American silent films. The first, Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary “Hugo,” reminds us of the transformative power of cinema itself. “The Artist” has more modest aims: It asks us to appreciate the skill that made a unique art form remarkably popular by sticking to the rules of that era.

Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius limits himself to the tools of a silent movie: written title cards, a broadly expressive acting style, black-and-white photography, leisurely cutting that lets us take in physical details at length. (Hazanavicius shared editing chores with Anne-Sophie Bion.) Ludovic Bource’s music underscores each mood: buoyant, anguished, excited, contemplative. Had “The Artist” been made 75 years ago, it might have been brushed aside as melodrama. Today, its affection for a lost past strikes the right note of wistful nostalgia.

Hollywood made silent features for less than 20 years, from the early 1910s to about 1930. (Charles Chaplin persisted longer, but virtually no one else did.) And “The Artist” begins in 1927, as roguish George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) enjoys box-office success for his most recent generic spy flick.

Audiences, especially women, fuss over him; one of them, aptly named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), even gives him a kiss at the premiere. She gets into his next movie as an extra, dances with him and forms a bond that’s half a fan crush and half a serious attraction.

The head of Kinograph Studios (John Goodman) warns his leading man that sound is on the way in; anyone who clings to the old way will be swept into oblivion. George believes his public won’t care. He quits Kinograph, funds a new silent movie that eats up most of his savings and suffers further in the 1929 stock market crash. From there, the movie charts his fall and Peppy’s rise, as she eclipses his celebrity but comes to care for him.

Hazanavicius crammed his film with references to classics that come before its setting (a sequence from the 1920 “The Mark of Zorro”) and after. The breakfast montage with George and his wife, who become more formally dressed and less connected, echoes “Citizen Kane.” The scene where an actress with a presumably screechy voice has a disastrous sound test reminds us of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Dujardin combines the qualities of many silent stars: Chaplin’s nimbleness, Douglas Fairbanks’ dash, John Gilbert’s romantic allure. His fear of sound especially suggests the legend of Gilbert, whose career decayed during the early sound era. (The claim that Gilbert’s high, squeaking voice ruined him isn’t true; studio politics and alcoholism did him in.)

Bejo has no obvious model in the silent era. Her cheerful sexiness and long-legged tap steps suggest Eleanor Powell, the 1930s dancer, though Bejo’s a sharper actress: The camera falls in love with her, as cinematographers used to say. (It also loves Uggie, the plucky little mutt who accompanies Valentin in movies and life. Canine gestures that have become film clichés work here because they were invented decades ago, in Uggie’s time.)

The film must have been a labor of love for Hazanavicius, who’d previously been known for the lightweight “OSS 117” spy spoofs set in Cairo and Rio. (He imported his “Artist” leads and crew from that series.)

But he has a serious point here: Sound isn’t “better” than silence, just as color isn’t “better” than black and white. (Indeed, he uses strategically positioned ambient sounds to make a point.) Talkies may have killed silent movies, the way TV serials and soap operas wiped out radio dramas. But there are stories most effectively told in the old style, and “The Artist” is proof.

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12/22/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Charming, sometimes moving, tribute to silent films and the people who made them. (It’s almost wordless itself.)

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