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THE ARTIST
(****)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Written & Directed by:
Michel Hazanavicius
Starring:
Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo,  John Goodman
Length:   100 minutes
Released:   112311
Rating:
PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture
“'The Artist' is a pure delight from start to finish" 

Who would have expected that the closing weeks of 2011 would include the release of two different feature films that would pay homage to the long-lost days of the silent cinema? First there was "Hugo" Martin Scorsese's extraordinary love letter to the art form that paid special tribute to one of its true pioneers, French filmmaker Georges Melies. Now there is the much-discussed "The Artist," a French film that does "Hugo" one better by being an actual, genuine black-and-white silent film from start to finish. Granted, the idea of doing a contemporary silent film is not that unique--Mel Brooks famously did just that with his 1976 classic "Silent Movie" and off the top of my head, I also remember the gimmick being deployed in such low-budget indie films as Charles Lane's 1989 comedy-drama "Sidewalk Stories" and the weirdo would-be midnight movie "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died" (based on a long-lost screenplay by none other than the infamous Ed Wood)--but "The Artist" does it so well and so entertainingly that it becomes an impossible-to-resist charmer that will entrance students of the cinema and general audiences in equal measures.

Opening in 1927, the film begins at the premiere of "The Russian Affair," the latest effort featuring George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), Hollywood's most dashing and popular movie star. After the premiere, he is outside the theater kibitzing with the press when he bumps into aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bajo) and the two find themselves in the middle of a photo op that lands them on the front page of every paper in town, a development that thrills Peppy, annoys George's long-suffering wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and the choleric head of the studio (John Goodman) and, like practically everything else in his rarefied world, amuses George to no end. The next day at the studio, the two run into each other again when she is hired to be an extra in his latest film ("A German Affair") and the chemistry that they share during their one screen moment together is obvious. Later on, George even thoughtfully pencils in a beauty mark on her face as a way to help her further stand out from the crowd. Between that and her undeniable talent, Peppy soon finds herself rising through the ranks of starlets as the studio grooms her to be one of their next big stars.

Two years later, everything changes for both George and Peppy as the studio decides to phase out silent movies entirely in order to concentrate solely on producing talking pictures--a sweeping move that leaves Peppy poised for stardom while George is dumped entirely on the theory that talkies need newer and fresher faces. Unwilling to adapt to the time, George decides to sink virtually all of his own money into producing, directing and starring in his own silent movie to show the industry how wrong they are. Alas, the movie is an enormous flop and between that and the stock market crash, George swiftly loses his wife, his mansion, his loyal manservant (James Cromwell)--everything except for his faithful dog/co-star Uggie (Uggie). To make matters worse, through an unfortunate misunderstanding, it seems as if even the now-famous Peppy has turned her back on him as well--the fact that her latest box-office hit opened the same day as his failure certainly doesn't help matters much either. By 1931, George is destitute, living in a shabby apartment with nothing more to his name but Uggie, some reels of film and the tattered remains of his pride and it appears as if his life and career is destined for the same tragic conclusion that was met by many silent film stars who found themselves unable to make the switch to talkies. Of course, George has one advantage in the fact that he is actually in a movie and as a result, there is always the possibility of an improbable reversal of fortune that somehow lands him back on top with the woman he loves by his side, not to mention Uggie, of course.

Most film fans will recognize that much of the plot of "The Artist" is derived from the storylines of two of the most famous films ever made about Hollywood--namely "Singin in the Rain" and "A Star is Born." However what the story cooked up by writer-director Michel Hazanavicius may lack in pure originality, he more than makes up for it with the utterly beguiling style with which he tells it. Yes, the silent movie aspect is essentially a gimmick but unlike nonsense like 3D, it is a gimmick that works because he uses it as a tool with which to tell his story rather than making the entire film solely about it. For the first few minutes, of course, the silence (not counting the music that plays all the way through nor the occasional judiciously employed sound effect) is quite noticeable, as is the broader performance style utilized by the actors to better convey their actions so as to make up for the absence of dialogue. However, as it goes on, the novelty aspect begins to fade away because the story is so engrossing and the characters are so charming and entertaining that most people will be too caught up in what is going on to realize that it is a silent film. Another interesting thing about Hazanavicius' approach is that, unlike the Mel Brooks movie, "The Artist" is not a spoof of silent films--like the classic works of comedians like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, it is simply a comedy that happens to be silent--and that goes a long way towards helping it work as a genuine film and not simply as an arcane gimmick.

Hazanavicius has collaborated in the past with Jean Dujardin on the "OSS 117" films, a pair of sly spy spoofs that were huge hits in Europe and became cult hits in these parts as well. Based on the success of those projects, Hazanavicius was able to get this film off the ground and center it around Dujardin and the end result his a gift that everyone can enjoy. Even though he is playing a smug and vain movie star, Dujardin makes George so utterly likable that when you see that his mansion contains an enormous portrait of him displaying the grin that seems permanently plastered on his face during the first half, even that testament to his love of himself seems kind of charming. However, Dujardin's work here isn't just a bunch of slapstick goofiness along the lines of the OSS movies--this is a real performance that covers the entirety of the emotional spectrum and it is no wonder that Dujardin won the Best Actor award at Cannes earlier this year. As the perfectly named Peppy, Berenice Bajo (also a veteran of the OSS films) is utterly delightful and has just the kind of outsized personality that is perfectly suited for the challenges of silent-film acting. That said, despite the contributions of Dujardin and Bajo, it is little Uggie the dog that flat-out steals every scene that he appears in with what is certainly one of the very best canine performances in film history--even those viewers who aren't necessarily dog people will find themselves captivated by his contributions. Sure, sure, people are talking about the heroic contributions of Snowy in "The Adventures of Tintin" but the things that Uggie does here are twice as spectacular as any of Snowy's exertions and he has the added benefit of being real and not merely a mass of 1's and 0's.

"The Artist" is a pure delight from start to finish--I have seen it twice now and it has yet to lose even an iota of its considerable charms. If there is a flaw about it, it is that the wild praise that it has been receiving ever since it premiered at Cannes--it is now the front-runner for the Oscar for Best Picture--may lead to some viewers approaching it with impossibly high expectations that no film, especially a light and good-hearted comedy, could possibly match. I admit, it isn't the weightiest movie that you will season but you will be hard-pressed to find one more entertaining playing in theaters these days. Yes, it is silent. Yes, it is in black-and-white. Yes, it is French (though the title cards are, of course, in English and it was filmed in the U.S.). For some people, those elements might seem like a turn-off but trust me, they work fabulously and help to make "The Artist" into the kind of film that will leave viewers entranced, excited and, well, speechless.

THE ARTIST © 2013 The Weinstein Company
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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