The Artist has been receiving incredible press ever since it started appearing at film festivals and in limited release last year. It’s already won 69 various awards and this Sunday it is up for 10 Oscars. Yet many people in the US may not have seen the movie yet since it’s mostly been in art house theaters, playing in major cities. It was only in this last week that I got the chance to see it.
The movie revolves around the epochal change when sound pictures were introduced. Fittingly, the movie begins within a silent film starring George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). With the help of his trusty dog, Uggie, he escapes from the Communists who have captured him, frees the girl, and they all fly away in a plane, to the thunderous applause (seen, not heard) from the audience. George then appears before the crowd, mugging with Uggie, and upstaging his costar, Constance (Missi Pyle). Leaving the theater, George has one of those meet cute moments you expect in a movie when Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) loses her autograph book and backs into George while retrieving it. Their vamping for the photographers leads to headlines the next day – Who Is This Girl?
Peppy’s an extra, hired unknowingly for George’s next project, which leads to another meet cute – this involving dance. The studio owner, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), is ready to toss her off the set since her encounter with George upstaged his picture’s premiere. However, George intercedes to keep her in the film. He finds himself being drawn to her, especially since his marriage to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) is a loveless one.
Zimmer shows George sound test footage, but the actor scoffs at the new process. When he’s let go as Zimmer’s studio converts to sound, George bets everything on producing his own silent picture – and loses. His star descends, but Peppy’s shoots into the stratosphere as a new comedic star of talking pictures.
This story vein has been minded before, most notably by Singing In The Rain, arguably the best movie musical of all time. Telling it from the silent perspective does give it a fresh twist. Dujardin is a star in France, having appeared in the two OSS 117 spy comedy/adventures among other roles. His face is wonderfully expressive and he handles the silent acting beautifully. Even in the scenes where he’s acting within the movie, he carries them off with the grace of a Valentino. Bejo lives up to her character’s name, and she has a scene with a coat on a hanger that’s Chaplinesque. She happens to be married to the director of the film, but there was obviously no nepotism in her casting. She’s wonderful.
While John Goodman hasn’t been doing much on film recently, he serves notice that he’s just as fine an actor as ever. The film also features James Cromwell as George’s loyal chauffeur as well as Ed Lauter and Malcolm McDowell, both in small roles as butlers/actors.
French director Michel Hazanavicius also wrote the screenplay, and he has crafted some marvelous scenes. He filmed the movie in black and white, in the classic 1.37 : 1 ratio of movies at that time. There is a dream sequence that turns into a nightmare of sound that is absolutely stunning. The movie is a wonderful paean to the Hollywood film industry, created by a Frenchman.
The original music by Ludovic Bource is good and sounds like a silent film orchestral score. For some reason, though, when the movie comes to the climax, they use the classic Bernard Herrmann “Love Scene” from Vertigo. That iconic piece of music nearly overwhelms the scene, summoning up the complex psychological relationships in the original movie that are missing in the much more straightforward Artist.
The $64,000 question right now is, does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday? After seeing it, I would have to say no. I’d go for the much broader in scope and technically superior Hugo (which, oddly enough, is a wonderful paean to the French film industry, created by an American). I’m afraid if it does win, in a few years it will be added to the list of embarrassing Best Picture wins, like 1969 when Oliver! beat out The Lion In Winter, Rachel Rachel, and Funny Girl, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bullitt, The Odd Couple, The Producers, and Rosemary’s Baby weren’t even nominated for the award.
Will The Artist win? Probably. That’s the way the end would be written in Hollywood.