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Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011

The Artist

Revisiting the birth of talking pictures

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The Artist is a brilliantly conceived and executed journey into the past. French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius directed the mostly silent movie about the decline of silent movies, shooting it in gorgeous black and white and adding English title cards. The acting is a reminder of Norma Desmond's remark about the silent era in Sunset Boulevard: “They had faces then.” The cast of The Artist conveys most everything we need to know by their facial and physical responses. As the film proceeds, the title cards appear less often. Hazanavicius was confident that once the shock of silence was overcome, the audience would easily learn to follow a film without audible dialogue. He wasn't mistaken.

Of course, silent movies were never meant to be presented in total silence. The Artist opens as an audience in a grand movie palace watches a silent movie accompanied by an orchestra in the pit, the visuals dramatized with live music. The movie on the screen stars The Artist's protagonist, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks with boundless charm and a dapper pencil-thin mustache. After the movie's premiere, as crowds press around Valentin outside the cinema, he's thrown together through a bit of slapstick with an aspiring actress, the aptly named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a wide-eyed beauty with a flapper's carefree confidence. Their encounter opens doors for her, and in the following scenes we see her name rising in the credits of movie after movie in one of Hazanavicius' many sharply imagined visualizations. Explanatory chatter is absolutely unnecessary.

In a plot reminiscent of A Star Is Born and Singin' in the Rain, Peppy's star rises as George's sets with the onset of talking pictures. She is cast as a “fresh new face,” while George is cast off as a has-been. The first sign of things to come is visible when George and his producer watch an early sound test in a screening room—in silence. “Don't laugh, George, that's the future,” says the producer (through a title card). And in one of The Artist's few non-silent scenes (apart from Ludovic Bource's expressive and virtually incessant score), George endures a prophetic nightmare about the changing film industry in which sound comes in awkward gasps and clanks, just as in many early talking pictures.

Although sparkling with humor, The Artist is also replete with pathos. We care about George and Peppy, even though we never hear them speak and can understand their emotions only from the looks in their eyes and the expressions they wear. The Oscar buzz is entirely justified. The Artist is a remarkable achievement, a reminder that the art of cinema wasn't necessarily improved by the introduction of sound, which often diminishes the visual properties of film in favor of too much inane talking.