An honest-to-god silent film produced in 2011? Black & white, intertitles, Academy Standard 1.37:1 aspect ratio… the works? That someone would make such a thing, as a genuine feature film intended as anything more than a student short or an art installation curio, is audacious in itself. That it would find distribution in the current market is astonishing. That it could actually be one of the best films of the year? I have only one word for that:
‘The Artist’ is the third collaboration of French comedian Jean Dujardin and director Michel Hazanavicius, who previously made the ‘OSS 117‘ spy spoofs. I saw the first of those and was pretty amused by it. (I keep meaning to import the second.) The director and star clearly studied up on early James Bond and similar espionage pictures (including the original OSS 117, which was a real literary and film franchise) to create a pitch-perfect parody of the genre. When I heard that they’d set their sights on silent films next, I expected another clever comedy, perhaps something along the lines of Mel Brooks’ ‘Silent Movie’.
Surprisingly, ‘The Artist’ isn’t a spoof at all. It’s a real silent film, a loving tribute to the form made in an exact recreation of the style. Yes, it’s funny. It has fun with the conceit. (The opening scene brilliantly leads the audience into the experience.) But it also tells a real story – a melodrama of the sort popular in the 1920s – in silent form.
Dujardin plays George Valentin, a Hollywood superstar in the Douglas Fairbanks mold, whose world begins to crumble with the introduction of the dreaded “Talkies.” Valentin stubbornly resists making the transition to sound, and sets about pouring all of his personal wealth into production of his greatest silent epic ever. Meanwhile, a young upstart ingénue named Peppy Miller (who only got her big break in the first place thanks to Valentin) takes the world by storm with her sound comedies.
Dujardin makes a perfect silent movie star. His performance is absolutely flawless. He’s dashing, charismatic, funny and ultimately heartbreaking. The supporting cast is also populated with a few recognizable faces such as John Goodman, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell, all of whom rise to the challenge of acting in the exaggerated silent movie style without crossing over into parody. And I have to ask, is it possible for a dog to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar? A little Jack Russell Terrier named Uggie deserves one. What are the rules on that?
‘The Artist’ is a love letter to silent films that proves that the genre still works. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s emotional, and it’s enormously entertaining. I loved Every Single Frame of this movie.
[Note: ‘The Artist’ is currently playing in limited release in only six theaters in New York and L.A. for awards consideration, of which it will certainly rack up a lot of nominations. I saw a screening in Boston as part of the Talk Cinema series (and as such am not under any review embargo restrictions). The film will expand to wider release as it continues to build buzz.]