Faith & Film: The Artist

The talk of the film year has been the amazing story of a black and white silent film which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last May and opened in late 2011 to critical claim in the United States. Now it has won a Golden Globe, and, with 10 Oscar nominations, seems the movie to beat for best picture. It’s been over 80 years since a silent film won the Oscar for best picture, and 18 since a black and white film won. “The Artist” could well make history at the Oscars this year.

“The Artist” is a beautifully filmed movie which chronicles the move from silent films to the talkies in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It opens at a gala premiere of a new silent movie in Hollywood with a dashing actor in an adventure film. The enormous and opulent theater is packed with an enthusiastic, cheering crowd. Outside, on the red carpet, a young woman fan accidentally bumps into the star, George Valentin, who obliges her with a kiss. The photographers have a field day with the kiss, and Peppy Miller, the pretty young woman, becomes an overnight celebrity. She lands bit parts in the movies, and eventually becomes a big star of the talkies.

George, meanwhile, insists that the silent films have a future. When no studio will make a silent film starring George, he produces and directs his own film, which flops. Soon George has lost his wife, his fame, and his fortune. Only his faithful chauffeur and dog, Uggie, remain with him.

Sound familiar? “The Artist” brings to mind many classic films, from “A Star Is Born” to “Singing in the Rain” to “Sunset Boulevard,” movies made during Hollywood’s Golden Era. What movie fan wouldn’t be caught up in a wave of nostalgia for such great films of yesteryear? My only criticism of “The Artist” is that its story becomes rather melodramatic in the second half, dealing with George’s descent. The film suddenly detours into very dark territory, temporarily losing its overall lightness and charm. Thankfully, it ends on a happy note, like the great movies of old.

Director-writer Michel Hazanavicius deserves great credit for creating such an imaginative film, so unlike anything we see today. It’s easy to see why people fell in love with the silent movies, and identified with characters who did not speak. Actors Jean Dujardin and Bernice Bejo do great jobs with Jacques and Peppy. They have the challenging task that none of their contemporaries has to face: acting without speaking, conveying emotion without uttering a word.

There are many great set pieces, from the opening premiere, to a conversation between George and Peppy on a staircase, with people walking up and down around them. Even the scene stealing dog, Uggie, gets his own big scene in which he runs down the street to find a policeman to save his master in distress. I loved one of only two scenes using sound. George becomes terrified that the era of sound will take over. He begins to hear exaggerated noises in his dressing room he never heard before, from clocks ticking loudly to a feather which lands with a resounding “boom!” on the floor.

“The Artist” is also aided by a great score from Ludovic Bource. Characteristic of the silent era, music underscores the emotion in almost every scene, from the playful main title to the somber tones late in the film. The film even uses some music from Bernard Hermann’s classic score to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

Despite my reservation about the somber tone late in the film, I do recommend “The Artist” to anyone who wants to be dazzled by the kind of movie no one makes anymore. With so many filmmakers rushing to 3-D, Hazanavicius has gone back in history to create a true original.

Tom Condon, OP