Tuesday, August 20, 2013

THE ARTIST (2011)


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THE ARTIST (DIR: MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS) (SCR:  MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS)

THE ARTIST was the first (mostly) silent film to win the Best Picture award since the first Academy Award ceremony way back in 1927 picked WINGS; in fact, it was the first silent film to get a wide release at all in America since Mel Brooks's amusing parody SILENT MOVIE in 1976.  Even more unusual is that, despite it's Hollywood setting, it's production began in France, making it the only French film to ever breakthrough to mainstream audiences in America.  And with good reason, THE ARTIST was clearly a labor of love for director Michel Hazanavicius, who put so much work into the film's look and style to make sure it was authentic to the era it was set in.  And while it's not my personal favorite film of 2011, I still find it charming and lovely, with a great score by Ludovic Bource and excellent camera work by Guilliaume Schiffman.
Making an homage to silent Hollywood films had been a dream of Paris born director Hazanavicius for years.  After making two successful spy spoofs (OSS 177: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES, in 2006, and OSS 177: LOST IN RIO in 2009), he finally was able to get studio interest.  He wrote a screenplay based loosely on the careers of silent film stars like John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks, and cast stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, both of whom  he had worked with before in his spy movies, to play the leads.  The film was funded by different French studios and shot entirely in Hollywood, with as many authentic historical locations being utilized as possible; even the house that silent star Mary Pickford once lived was used. Hazanavicius made sure during filming to not use any modern camera techniques (like zoom lenses) and even shot the film at a slightly different speed than normal to give the action a more sped up look, like an authentic silent film.  The film was shot in thirty five days at a budget of around $15,000,000; it would go on to make around $45,000,000 in the US alone.
It's story begins in 1927, when silent film idol George Valentine(Dujardin) accidentally bumps into pretty young fan Peppy Miller (Bejo) at a movie premier and then smilingly introduces her to the press.  When Peppy tries to use her sudden celebrity to become a star herself, George himself demands that the studio hire her as an extra.  When sound films start to become popular George dismisses them as a fad and produces his own silent film, which flops, meanwhile Peppy's star keeps rising.  A destitute George auctions off all his possessions, and even considers suicide, but Peppy, who never forgot how he helped make her famous, stops him and demands that the studio cast him as her leading man in a big musical.


Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo


For the most part, THE ARTIST is simply a joy to watch, and its affection for old Hollywood films shines through in every frame.  Along with introducing a whole new audience to the joys of silent cinema, it also features in joke references to old movies (both sound and silent) for film buffs.  The use of silent film techniques throughout the film, like irises and superimposed images, is very effective. (I especially like the juxtaposition of superimposed images that flood the screen during Peppy's rise to fame.)   The movie cleverly opens with a showing of George's latest movie, an adventure film that has him being tortured with electrical  bolts (not unlike the kind that brought Frankenstein's monster to life); he responds to the torture by yelling through title card, "I won't talk!", an amusing bit of foreshadowing.  That kind of wit runs through the whole movie, and reaches an apex when George, during a nightmare, suddenly begins to hear all the sounds around him, while he himself is still silent; the scene builds slowly, with the sound of a glass being placed on a counter making a clink noise, to the building of various noises, until it climaxes with a horrified George being laughed at by passing show girls and then hearing a feather land on the ground with a loud bang.   Along with being a fun scene, it nicely summarizes the fear that ran through Hollywood as sound films quickly took over and stars suddenly had to scramble to adjust.  Another nice bit of foreshadowing comes when George's self directed and financed silent movie plays to an almost empty theater and ends with him slowly dying in quicksand!
It's interesting to note that George's similarities to John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks is more than a physical resemblance;  Gilbert and Fairbanks were both matinee idols who had trouble adjusting to sound film, and Gilbert's role in the 1933 Greta Garbo starring film QUEEN CRISTINA came because former lover Garbo demanded he be cast, just like Peppy does in THE ARTIST.  Sadly, neither of them made the kind of comeback that George does in the film.

John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks & Jean Dujardin


Jean Dujardin won an Oscar for best actor for his work here, and with his good looks, pencil mustache and immediate charm, it's easy to see why.  He really is the perfect embodiment of those dashing old stars, the kind of man who looks equally at home in a Zorro outfit or a dinner jacket.  And Dujardin's performance and Hazanavicius's script wield his likablity carefully; at first, George Valentin is far from perfect.  He's a glory hound who soaks up applause from an opening night audience alone before introducing his leading lady, and who has a large portrait of himself in his mansion that he waves to; he also clearly is no faithful husband to his long suffering wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).  But we still see George as a good person, partly because he helps along Peppy's career (I love the detail of him putting a beauty spot on her face to make her distinctive), and also because he has an adorable little dog named Jack that he's very affectionate with (he even takes Jack to a movie at one point!).  So the audience feels for him even as his ego leads him to produce his own silent film, which leads to his financial ruin, and the film's inevitable happy ending is touching now that he's learned a lesson in hubris.
As for Berenice Bejo as the well named Peppy, well, let's just say that it is no surprise that she's director Hazanavicius's wife!  Peppy is almost too good to be true; an absolute doll who gains fame and fortune but never lets it go to her head, and who always admires George and never forgets his helping her even when he's down and out.  Whether she's doing a energetic dance number or sneaking into George's dressing room to hug his coat, Bejo is never less than enchanting.  The rest of the film is also well cast, and I particularly like John Goodman as cigar chomping studio head Al Zimmer, who has a priceless reaction to Peppy blackmailing him into hiring back George.
My main problem with the film is that the story is a little too simple and predictable; at times it feels a bit stretched thin, with later scenes starting to drag and become repetitive.  The fact that George has to be saved from suicide twice (once by little Jack, making like Rin Tin Tin, saving him from a fire he started, and again by Peppy stopping him from shooting himself) shows a certain lack of originality in the filmmaking, and I think a subplot or two could have served the film well.  But I feel hard hearted to be criticizing such a good natured movie that's in love with cinema itself, so I still greatly enjoy the film, and I think it's a good movie to show kids if you want to introduce them to the early days of movies.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

As much as I enjoy this film, it wasn't my favorite of that year.  I think two old masters of filmmaking both did even better work that year: first there's Woody Allen's charming and funny MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and Martin Scorsase's gorgeous and moving HUGO (which, like THE ARTIST, looked back fondly on the early days of filmmaking).  Still, THE ARTIST is definitely not a poor decision by the Academy, and given that both Allen and Scorsase had won for previous films, I can't complain too much.