In this era of 3D goggles and digital IMAX projection, making a silent black-and-white movie in the virtually extinct 4:3 image format is courageous, to put it mildly. It is “a joyful daredevil act in the audiovisual times we’re suffering through, a challenge that requires both talent and imagination to get it right” (Carlos Boyero, El País). On the other hand, it is exactly this refreshing novelty of the project that is guaranteed to make it a darling of critics (as was the case in Cannes, where Jean Dujardin won the Award for Best Actor) and will draw curious cinephiles to movie theaters the world over. Unfortunately, the film loses too much of its initial humor and pace midway through to hold the attention of a more traditional movie-going public.
Director Michel Hazanavicius eases us into the experience of watching a silent movie. We enter the story at a screening of the latest release of silent movie star George Valentin (Dujardin). By alternately focusing on the movie screen, the audience’s reactions of fright and laughter, and the orchestra playing the accompanying music, the director very effectively shows us the magic of the early days of cinema. When the show is over and its star takes the stage, we start to notice that Hazanavicius has taken the ultimate step in paying homage to classical Hollywood: there is no sound except for the score (a wonderful re-interpretation of the classics by Ludovic Bource) and the sparse dialogue is handled through intertitles. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a slightly lower than usual frame rate (22 frames per second, giving the projection that somewhat sped-up quality) complete the technical restrictions. But despite all this, The Artist never feels old-fashioned. Where the need arises, Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman “use a vocabulary that is a little more modern” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). Obviously, this film requires a very specific style of acting, for which Jean Dujardin with his classical features and infinite range of facial expressions has rightly won high praise. At the same time – in a very self-referential moment – the final scene shows where the limitations lie of both Dujardin’s character and of the actor himself.
The Artist tells the story of the introduction of sound in Hollywood cinema at the end of the 1920′s. As silent movie star George Valentin dismisses the new technology and quickly sees himself become a dinosaur, a cheeky flapper who started out as a dancer on his movies rises to stardom in the talkies. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at first is in awe of Valentin’s stardom and charm. The two have an undeniable chemistry, but as Peppy’s career starts to take off she quickly passes him by (literally, on a “going up, going down” stairway scene). Meanwhile, George’s marriage crumbles (shown in a breakfast table montage that may remind you of Citizen Kane) and what’s left of his fortune goes up in smoke in the 1929 stock market crash. All seems lost, but fate has something else in store for him.
Hazanavicius has said that the audience has to accept the clichés in order to enjoy this movie. And it is surprising how quickly you get accustomed to Dujardin’s exaggerated mugging and Bejo’s faces of wide-eyed wonder. The format forces the filmmaker to tell a story with universal emotions, not too many digressions and a limited set of stereotypical characters. Besides George and Peppy we get to enjoy John Goodman as cigar-chomping studio boss Al Zimmer and James Cromwell as George’s demure driver and assistant. It is an interesting experiment amid the Sorkin-scripted talkative fare and Spielberg-produced turbulence that dominate our screens.
However, after the “exhilarating virtuosity” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde) of the first part, the experiment runs out of steam. “What follows is George Valentin’s crossing the desert, which is less convincing. The slower pace is not accompanied by an increased intensity of emotions” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). Hazanavicius’s self-imposed limitations begin to work against him. But luckily the movie regains its pace in time to carry our heroes into a delightful musical finale that will have anyone with a slight sense of the history of cinema leave the movie theatre humming.