Friday, October 28, 2011

The Artist

The joy of going to movie is that incandescent thrill of seeing something for the first time, and experiencing that with a group of strangers in a dark room.  Ready to enthralled by a piece of magic, wonder, delight, anguish; something that only a movie can conjure.  The cynics of filmmaking may claim they've seen everything-- I may be off that creed from time to time-- but there's something utterly refreshing, rejuvenating and enthralling about the joys and delights of The Artist, a black and white old-school Hollywood film-- silent, in fact-- that's resonant and magically in its shadings and detailing of the past, and the palpable connection of the future of the medium.  The old and the new are the settings of this film, that starts in 1927, but time or history or circumstance matters very little, it's the communal bond and joy of movie-making that marks The Artist as not just a good, nostalgic piece of cinematic fluff, but ultimately a substantial indictment of the modern possibilities of art.  Entertaining, crowd-pleasing, and charming as hell, the film (written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius) is both love-letter to movies of yore, and magnetic character study of a fictional fallen movie star, played to the hilt and everything else by Jean Dujardin, a magnetic actor of imposing movie star range (he won the Best Actor prize at this years Cannes Film Festival.)

The film opens at a movie premiere, one starring George Valentin (Dujardin), and the sequence is sublime in its silent tension.  The film plays to a full crowd, while George paces back and forth in the rafters.  All we hear is the glorious soundtrack, and the gimmick of the silent film setting settles and oozes within minutes; it matters hardly at all the words not said, nor the sparse subtitles the film offers-- we get the mood-- anxiety and excitement, well and George is a huge movie star with the world at his feet.  The film ends, and roared with such expressive enthusiasm by the crowd; it matters little that we don't actually hear the screams and praises, we see it.  George, the ever-adoring showman, makes his appearance to his public and hams it with such aplomb, and old-school twinkle in his eye, that it's hard not be captivated.  Perhaps Norma Desmond had it right in, "We had faces back then."  He gushes for his public and the cameras, all lined outside the old movie house, when something happens.  A pretty young flapper (Berenice Bejo), through comedic happenstance invades the picture session.  The early scene is comically manic, and beautifully played, with both performers insecurity softly filtering out, but combined with that grand "let's go with the show" attitude; while perhaps not impressing many with his charming shenanigans (certainly not his wife, nor his director), it makes for great press for George, but also the newcomer actress, we later learn is named Peppy Miller.

What plays is an on first glance of A Star is Born-redux as the movie-going world starts to change, and the birth of sound begins to appear.  George, a king of the silent era is thrown away, as Peppy begins to blossom as the new system emerges.  However to reduce the many joys and complexities of The Artist as a mere gimmicky remake would be wrong.  In the films embrace of the old, and film junkies will likely adore this bit, the film is staged as a movie of its kind, but with the understanding and knowing that it's not.  Super-fast cuts, alongside cheekily fun dissolves make the film fun, but it's the nurturing of it's two main characters, and the expressiveness that both bring to their wordless parts that make it a wonder.  George brings Pepper aboard on his next picture, following the impromptu media dance, and there's a sequence that's glowing and slightly farcical and utterly romantic in it's vestige of old Hollywood.  A merely incidental scene, where the two meet up and share a quick dance is lovely and charming, but impacting for it's many takes-- it's clear the two are smitten with one another, but also jealous and timid-- he's a big movie star, she's an ingenue and he's married for gods sack.  This sequence bring about greater pathos as the movie goes on.  Bejo, for her part is absolute charmer; a novice in the film perhaps, but expressing exquisite range.

The future comes and starts to haunt George, amusingly at first as he laughs off a screening of a sound test, more anguishing as a fevered dream where everything has a voice except himself.  To the films abundant charms, The Artist employs one of the cleverest and artful uses of sound itself, both implied, orchestrated, and sparsely audible.  As the film goes on, we venture into George's downfall-- the film risks a few too many attempts at showcasing rock bottom in our leading man-- he drinks, lashes out at himself on his pride, and one point sets a fire to his house, but what holds the melodrama is Dujardin, in his restraint, but unbelievable physicality to the performance.  He presents George not as charmer through and through, and once he's run out of people to charm out of tougher spots, he's left with his memories of big screen glory and his Asta-like canine companion (a fuller character than many in the sodden days of franchise filmmaking)...yet it's a startling confessional of the vanishing act that befell many of greats of the silent era.  The Artist may not be much more than a grand love letter to golden age of Hollywood, but it strikes a nerve and feels connected with a path more modern filmmakers should head.  The movies of that era tended to have a starker, less finessed quality, but were bold experiments; everything in the The Artist, while a throwback through and through, feels like it's just happening, and being discovered.

That it took a French filmmaker and Parisian-born actor to spin out a great old Hollywood yarn is both a token of the grand Hollywood allure of cinema, and unimportant as the power of cinema should never have a language barrier. For the infectious charms of The Artist are universal, even for the prickliest of modern filmgoers, who may never have seen a silent film, nor a black and white one.  It's striking how easy it is to forget the dialogue and the color aren't there, since the film has so much life and verve.  It's sort of hard to shake the wonders of this film; ever since I the film ended, I kept thinking...I want to live there.  A

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