The Artist is a glorious and faithful take on silent era films, in beautiful black and white, shot in and around Hollywood’s most famous old sites and studios. For all the world, it looks as though it was made in 1927, but for the modern high gloss, crisp high definition which only makes you wish they’d had it way back then.
Spiritually, it is entirely authentic, assuming the look, feel, attitudes and affectations of old Hollywood as it learns and feels its way through the birth and development of the film industry.
French actor Jean Dujardin stars as Georg Valentin, a handsome, talented hoofer and silent film actor who has reached the pinnacle of wealth and fame. He lives well, and loves his life; in fact, he’s a most unusual success as a character for contemporary movies, but about par for the earliest cinema males.
And dare I say it, there’s innocence about Valentin and about Hollywood in general, as depicted here. There’s plenty of old fashioned goodwill in this bonbon.
Valentin’s just finished making the historical drama A Russian Affair and is about to begin A German Affair. Among his dancers is a wide eyed newcomer to Hollywood, Peppy Miller, played by Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo, an aspiring actress whose elfin charm sets her apart from the rest of the chorines.
She gets an extra leg up when she and Valentin do a soft shoe number together separated by a blanket between them, unaware that he is the rich and powerful actor. There is chemistry!
The studio head (John Goodman) is an old fashioned movie mogul, chomping on cigars, ordering changes, holding meetings in his oak lined office. He’s been having a lot of meetings lately about this new development – sound technology – that means actors will now be heard as well as seen. Valentin storms out of the office, poo pooing this “trend” that he says won’t last (or at least mouths that it won’t last.
It’s silent – hence dialogue cards and lots of terrific music. The mogul’s sad to see an era end but realizes sound isn’t going anywhere.
Back in the day, this actually happened.
Sound revolutionized the movies and put a generation of actors out of work, actors who didn’t have the voice for film or the heart to make the change. John Gilbert, one of the greatest romantic leads of the twenties, was one of them. He had a high voice and no future in talkies and ultimately his lover Greta Garbo, his Guardian Angel, cared for him.
As Miller’s star rises and rises through ever expanding roles and prestige, Valentin’s is falling. He can’t give up his pride; after all, he is an “artist” to make talkies so he produces his next film, a silent jungle adventure.
It opens to a house of a dozen patrons, while next door; the streets are jammed with people waiting to see Miller’s latest film. Depression and poverty set in. Miller meanwhile has been following him; she knows what’s happening to him and makes sacrifices for him, but he doesn’t know.
The Artist is a wonderfully uplifting, exotic and emotional experience, starring familiar actors like Malcolm McDowall, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller. And it’s in Hollywood. But it has its own unique unfamiliar feel, perhaps because it’s made by nostalgic, adoring international crew and cast. Whatever it is, it’s definitively a magical dream that you don’t want to end.
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35mm B&W silent romance
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Opens: Nov. 23
Runtime: 100 minutes