This past weekend, much praise was heaped on Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. A romantic comedy with just enough bittersweet drama to give it real emotional heft, this is a movie that not everyone might like. However, even those who don’t like it will probably understand why those who do like it, love it. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, The Artist is a tribute to a lost era of filmmaking.
The film starts off with George Valentin, silent movie star, celebrating the smash opening of his latest film. While he poses for the press, he runs into beautiful fan Peppy Miller. The two strike up a friendship and we learn that Peppy is a talented dancer with dreams of Hollywood. George and Peppy get closer as George and his wife grow more distant, and George helps get Peppy’s film career off the ground. However, these two meet at the very cusp of a revolution in film: the advent of the talkies. It is here where the film showcases the inversely parallel trajectory of their careers; whereas George is quickly discarded as a relic of the past, Peppy’s versatile skillset propels her into stardom. George Valentin is an incredibly proud man who refuses to believe that silent films have no place in modern movie making. His stubbornness ultimately results in his wife leaving him and his eventual bankruptcy at the hands of a self-financed film flop and The Great Depression.
Meanwhile, Peppy is becoming a bigger and bigger star who is well-known for the trademark beauty spot George drew on her and suggested she use to help her stand out from the crowd of other potential actresses. Despite her increasing success, she never loses sight of the man who helped her get her start, and who she has fallen for. Peppy struggles to keep George from losing all hope, as he becomes dangerously close to doing near the end of the film. It is from this dynamic that The Artist draws its greatest storytelling strengths.
Although this film is an extremely French production, it was shot in Hollywood and includes fun cameos, of which my favorite was John Goodman as a studio executive. Meanwhile, the two leads are simply fantastic. Jean Dujardin made history on Sunday by becoming the first French man to win the Best Actor Oscar, and the award was very well deserved. His George is an extremely expressive character, and Dujardin does not need words in order to convey that. In fact, Dujardin seems so good at playing an old-style character that it might be difficult to watch him do something modern; I want him to keep doing characters like this. Berenice Bejo as Peppy is equally good. Bejo does a great job of making Peppy such an optimistic and hopeful character in contrast to George’s steady decline after the beginning of the movie.
Hazanavicius’s direction and writing is also very noteworthy. He has a knack for infusing a lot of humor in this story, despite the fact that it delves into much more serious material at around the halfway mark. His direction, too, has a fun visual style that plays well with the black and white cinematography, which is also extremely sharp, clean, and beautiful. The musical score, in particular, was something that I thought was also a standout in this film full of creativity and great performances. I thought it sounded amazing and was pitch perfect alongside the tone that Hazanavicius was creating throughout the movie.
I will admit that I haven’t seen a lot of black and white silent films. I’m not well versed in the Charlie Chaplin classics as some of my friends are. When I first heard about The Artist and all the awards it was winning, I believed it was simply due to its somewhat gimmicky nature as a black and white silent film in a modern era. While this still might be true, there is no denying that The Artist is an extremely well-made film. What it did for me, was open up a door to a type of filmmaking I had never truly experienced before. Silent films are really something extraordinary. Before we had brilliant dialogue to help convey complex stories and the emotions of the characters on screen, we had these films. These are movies that place a lot of emphasis on the skill of the director and the actors themselves. The director, I feel, must take more painstaking care at creating images that truly convey his vision without the benefit of any dialogue. Meanwhile the actors have to learn how to be much more expressive; silent films would be no place for the kind of phoned-in, wooden acting we have become accustomed to in modern disposable films. My desire to explore more of this beautiful type of filmmaking has been piqued, and I have The Artist to thank for that.