Movie Review: “The Artist”

Written by Brent Holmes December 24, 2011

Silence is golden.

Nostalgia seems to have become the common trend of films of 2011: First, J.J. Abrams performed an act of public cock-sucking with Super 8, and Martin Scorsese followed suit constructing a 3D love letter to cinema in Hugo. Hazanavicius’ The Artist shows greater understanding of filmmaking by expressing a love for a cinema that has become long since forgotten: the silent cinema. In less than two hours, Michel Hazanavicius’ film proves that speaking is perhaps the lowest form of communication.

Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, a silent film star who finds his career destroyed upon the development of ‘talkies’. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, a young girl who accidentally stumbles into a photo shoot of Valentin. While she becomes a sensation as an actress in sound pictures, Valentin struggles with losing the glamour of his old cinema.

Dujardin and Bejo are able to create more compelling performances without saying a word than actors with the most amount of emotional dialogue. They are well supported by performances by John Goodman and James Cromwell. Valentine’s dog played by Uggie provides some great material for Dujardin, if there were awards for best performance by an animal, he would definitely have his paws on that award.

Valentin and Miller are two great characters. They are people who can see art in everyday things. Whether its Valentin’s constant public and private routines with his dog or Miller’s beautiful use of a hanging tuxedo, these are characters who find themselves lost in the noise of production studios. Their struggle to find that art that they once knew is one that speaks in an incredible compelling voice.

Theirs is a story that hearkens back to films such as Singing in the Rain. By casting a love story against the glamour of an ever-changing business style Hollywood, but Hazanavicius’ work is superior as it has greater control of its themes. Here, the constant focus on profits is one that prevents artist’s from finding their voice.

Of course, the film is not really ‘silent’. Aside from clever winks at the audience during some other parts of the film, and the ending sequence, Ludovic Bource’s soundtrack is constantly providing a beautiful accompaniment to the image that presents the jazz music style of the 1920s-1930s while also providing the dramatic turns of the films second and third acts. The music effectively conveys the mood while at the same time presents memorable melodies and rhythms that are a pleasure to hear.

Hazanavicius shows great skill through imaginative dream sequences and a witty use of title cards that allows experimentations with sound to not only illustrate the point, but present it with a macabre humour that makes it easier to empathize with Valentine’s tragic losses. When Valentin finds himself surrounded in a world of sounds but unable to speak, it not only emphasizes the point but provides a powerful wink at the audience. Hazanavicius is smart in his use of title cards, that is to say, he rarely uses them. Even in a two character dialogue, he lets his actors do most of the talking.

The film is shot in black and white. A smart decision on the part of Hazanavicius but here the film does present some flaws. When one of Miller or Valentin’s films is being screened, the image quality is too good. There is no difference between the image of the film and the 1930s films shown within it. Hazanavicius is also too reliant on editing styles that reflect modern Hollywood styles. The Artist is most effective when the camera and editing work are mirroring that of the old silent cinema.

Where The Artist is strongest is in its appreciation for silent film that does not simply express a nostalgia without cynicism the way J.J. Abrams did in Super 8. In its portrayal of the Hollywood studio production and clash between a pride in one’s art and achieving popularity in mainstream cinema, Hazanavicius provides an effective criticism of Hollywood that is still true today.

This is a must-see film for this year. It will likely be a big contender at the Oscars. There are some great moments in cinema in which silence communicates more than any monologue or dialogue, and The Artist is one-hundred minutes of this idea being shouted as loud as it possibly can.

My Rating: 10/10

Uggie did actually win The Palm Dog Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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