Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jean Dujardin,
Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle
Director: Michael Hazanavicius
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Can you give me one more?
For the first Academy Awards of 1928, a silent film (and a pretty good one), Wings, took home the top prize for Best Picture. But the Oscars debuted right as the sound era was taking off, so there seemed little hope of another movie ever achieving that honor. Certainly less and less hope as the years went on.
Cut to 2011, and a little-picture-that-could called The Artist did the unthinkable, in more ways than one. It's almost beyond imagination that a silent film, filmed in the aspect ratio of old, and complete with intertitles, could even be MADE in this millennium, much less find an audience, and much less become Oscar's biggest story, claiming 5 big prizes including Picture, Director and Actor.
And consider...its success comes in an era when the majority of moviegoers don't want to see a black and white film, much less a silent one. That's the group that would be the hardest to convert to a movie like this, but I dare wager, at least a few of them were won over.
The Artist is a work of pure love, joy and effervescence. It finds in its genre no satire, no parody, no mockery...it embraces it so passionately and thoroughly, as a matter of fact, that I, as a genuine silent movie buff, found myself forgetting that I wasn't actually watching a picture from that era...only the occasional appearance by a familiar face like John Goodman or James Cromwell broke me out of my anachronistic spell.
It stars Jean Dujardin in an Oscar winning performance as George Valenin...kind of a mix of John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks, he is the leading star of Kinograph Pictures near the end of the 1920s, and the prize of the studio head (Goodman). He reigns a Hollywood of a different and more romantic era.
After the premiere of his latest hit, he encounters Peppy Miller (the luminous Bejo), in what might be dismissed as a meet-cute in a more cynical film, but this movie knows no such word. A few flashbulbs has her in the newspapers next to the handsome leading man, leading the country to ask who's that girl?
There is something between them. As she finds work as an extra on a movie set, Valentin defends her to his boss (angry that her photo caused his movie premiere to be bumped back to page 5), and even lovingly adorns her with a simple beauty mark so that she stands out from all the other girls.
But to those who know film history, or at least to those who've seen Singin' in the Rain, the silent era didn't bow out gracefully...it came crashing down, leaving much ruin in its wake. The talkies arrive, and Valentin, who sees what he does as a true art and sound as a gimmick, does not (or cannot) make the transition. In one of the most memorable sequences, he has a dream where sounds are alive all around him, yet he is unable to speak.
While Peppy is on the rise, George tries to prove a point by bankrolling his next silent film himself. The film is a flop...the public has already embraced sound. Peppy, however, becomes the new face of the new medium. When she tells George she saw his self-financed effort, he dryly asks if she wants a refund.
The arrival of sound left many once-giant stars discarded on the ash heap of cinema history. Almost all never made the leap into talkies, and almost none save Charlie Chaplin could even get away with continuing to make movies their way for a little while longer. It's a sad story, and George is the embodiment of it...finding his wealth whittled away by lack of work and the stock market crash until he's even watching his last possessions auctioned off from the back of a mostly empty room.
I don't want to make this movie sound tragic...although the stories that inspired it certainly were, this is a magical, lilting piece of romance, comedy and drama that hits all the right notes beautifully. Dujardin is a gifted actor who conveys torrents of humanity in his performance without speaking, and Bejo lights up the screen with her radiant work. And let's not forget George's dog...a charmer who steals many a scene delightfully.
But credit writer/director Michael Hazanavicius for having the courage to realize such an improbable vision. Even the smallest lack of conviction could have turned this into a winking mess, but he delivers a movie of breadth, beauty and fun, and dares his audience not to be enchanted.
I was...thoroughly. This truly is one of the best movies of the new millennium.
Many may not realize, but black and white is actually harder to photograph well than color, and they may not also realize how much it benefits from high definition. The cinematography is glorious, and this Sony Blu-ray delivers every scene with striking contrast and crispness. It's a joy to behold. (NOTE: the 1.33 aspect ratio is the original one intended by the filmmakers.)
I didn't notice much from the rear stage, but this is an interesting audio track...almost all music. The score at first sounds thin, adding to the authenticity, but I noticed as the movie (and timeline) progressed, the score got fuller and more dynamic. Nicely done.
I really wanted a commentary track, but there are four featurettes, including a Q&A with the cast and crew, the locations, and those who appeared in the film discussing it. There is also a blooper reel.
Sometimes you can not speak and still say volumes, and that's what The Artist does. The film becomes a startling work of originality simply by going back in time, and delivers an unforgettable slice of entertainment for those willing to put their pre-conceived notions aside and succumb. Highly recommended.