Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Artist

Michel Hazanavicious, France-Belgium, 2011 (8.5*)
Best Picture (AA, BAA)

Having won 114 awards so far, second only to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, you would expect this film to be one of the truly great cinematic masterpieces of all time. For me, it’s a good but not great film, not as good a 2011 film as Malick’s The Tree of Life, or Refn’s Drive, but I’d put it in the tier after that (with Midnight in Paris, The Help, Rango, and Ides of March). Most of the film is silent like it’s 20’s film star, George Valentin – even though it’s more like an enjoyable and rewarding romance in the tradition of classic 30’s films like My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, and My Favorite Wife (40’s?). Of course, by now familiarity makes this a fairly predictable ‘boy meets girl’ story.

Director Michel Hazanavicious, who also wrote the screenplay, has created a long overdue homage to films of that era which was also shot in the style of those films, including the same 4:3 aspect ratio of 35mm prints, and of course, black and white cinematography. Of course, we're not forgetting Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, which treaded similar ground regarding creating a visual reference to a classic cinematic style of the past.

The story is nothing new – it combines the boy meets girl story with the “rags to riches” and “riches to rags” stories of it’s two stars. Jean Dejardin won an Oscar (and 13 other awards) for his portrayal of fictitious silent film star George Valentin who bears an uncanny resemblance to the story of Douglas Fairbanks (except for a little average dancing), who was a swashbuckling action star and top box office draw in silent films, but, like many others, who never really made the transition when sound pictures arrived.

His real-life girlfriend, Bérénice Bejo, (photo above) steals the film for me as a young extra, and won seven acting awards for her Oscar-nominated performance as Peppy Miller, who catches George’s fancy in a ballroom dance scene in one of his silent films after stumbling into him outside a movie premiere for all the photographers to catch before that. He’s so immediately struck with her that he has trouble completing a simple scene, but the two part when the filming ends and follow their own career paths.

.. but, of course, George cannot shake her from his mind. At the same time, sound arrives to films, at which he scoffs, like many, thinking it will never catch on with the public – just like I didn’t think 3D would after so many failures in my lifetime.

His studio mogul, played by John Goodman, welcomes the new format but decides to can Valentin, thinking the new younger audience will also want new personalities talking, not aging silent stars. At the same time, Peppy Martin starts moving up the ladder to the stars, and her vivacious personality is a big hit, both within the story, and for Bejo in real life – in fact, for me, her energy, smile, and optimism steal the film as well as Jules/Georges heart.

Uggie is a Jack Russell terrier saved 
from a pound by trainer Omar Von Muller

There’s also a wonderful Jack Russell terrier named Uggie, claiming an award above, who adds welcome comic relief to what could have been a dreary story of the fall of a legend, from wealth to destitution. Uggie was also in Water for Elephants (2011), and What's Up, Scarlett (2005, comma required, lol). He obviously reminds most cinema fans of Asta, the spunky scene-stealing dog from the Thin Man series who starred in 14 films himself in the 30’s and 40’s, including My Favorite Wife.

For me, the one failing here is that half an hour into the film, Georges attends his first sound picture, because it stars Peppy Martin. At this point, director Hazanavicious should have introduced sound into this picture; unfortunately he did not, so we see an early talkie in silence, and we also do not hear the onscreen audiences reactions to the star-making film of Martin’s. By this point in The Artist, the gimmick of silence is wearing thin, and is not helped much by a dream of George's in which he hears the sounds of life but cannot talk himself. The only other sound in the picture is at the very end. I kept thinking that this would be a classic 30’s style film, but those all had sound, so instead this is more like an average 20’s film, very much like a Charlie Chaplin story, with lots of tear-wrenching pathos that keep it on the verge of tragedy, when it could have been more light-hearted and effervescent. It’s touted as a comedy, with a couple of dance numbers that are obviously not Astaire and Rodgers (though still fun in spirit), but spends 90% of it’s time as a tragic drama, relieved by a few humorous touches, mostly in the beginning of the story.

Definitely worth seeing, and an enjoyable if predictable story, but also overrated with this many awards. Malick's The Tree of Life (60 awards, including the Palm D'Or at Cannes) was a bigger hit with critics, and Drive (40 awards) was perhaps the sleeper of the year, both of which seemed closer to unforgettable cinematic art to me. But The Artist was definitely better than the dreariness of The Descendants, and was about on par with The Help, the two other films winning the most awards for the year; also with Take Shelter (31 awards), Woody's Midnight in Paris, and George Clooney’s overlooked The Ides of March.

Let’s hope that for Hazanavicious’ next film, he moves forward with time and adds sound so we can hear the laughter, the dialogue, and the dog barking.


sequence kids July 15, 2012 at 3:14 PM  

Not sure I agree with your choice here. but still popular.

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