Miss silent movies? Some of you are too young to know what silent movies are, never mind appreciate them. Anyways The Artist is a throwback to the days of the silent movie and it does a top notch job of it.
It’s 1927 and the era of silent films. Georges Valentin is the king of the big screen. The premiere of his latest release A Russian Affair is applauded greatly. He is quite the charmer with his debonair looks and his mall dog Jack by his side. Zimmer, his boss at the Kinograph Studios, loves him. Clifton, his valet, considers him his best friend. Outside he’s signing autographs when a young wannabe named Peppy Miller accidentally falls into him after dropping her purse. The incident is an event for photographers and even leads her to the cover of Variety magazine with the title ‘Who’s That Girl?”
Peppy and Georges meet again as she auditions as a dancer for his latest movie. He insists on giving her a role and even gives her a fake beauty mark for a competitive edge in Hollywood. It works as her fame is soon rising. Meanwhile Georges has a nightmare one night where he’s in a world of sound and he’s the only one who can’t talk.
It’s 1929 and Zimmer announces that Kinograph will now be doing movies with sound, or ‘talkies’ from now on. Valentin is unhappy feeling talkies are a passing fad. He stubbornly makes and directs his own silent film with his own finances. Unfortunately it opens on the same day as Peppy’s latest talkie release. Before the release, she’s being interviewed in a restaurant where she proudly talks of herself as ‘fresh meat’ and ‘out with the old, in with the new’ until she comes face to face with Valentin. Peppy’s movie is a hit while Georges’ silent movie is a flop. Georges’ wife kicks him out of the house and he takes up an apartment with Clifton. Meanwhile Peppy is a major Hollywood star. Despite her stardom, she never loses her thoughts and concerns for Georges. She even attends the premiere of his silent film.
Things turn for the worse for Georges especially after the stock market crash where it gets to the point he auctions everything off and fires Clifton who he hasn’t paid for a year. One day in a drunken rage, he burns all the copies of his movies save one. He’s trapped in the fire and can’t get out until Jack the Dog is able to attract a policeman’s attention. He’s rescued and taken to a hospital where Peppy soon takes him to her house to recuperate.
Georges awakes not only to find himself in Peppy’s house but to learn Clifton now works for her. Peppy then pleads to Zimmer to get Valentin to star in her next film, even going as far as threatening to quit Kinograph if he doesn’t agree. Meanwhile Georges discovers all his auctioned-off items at Peppy’s house and then returns to his burned-out apartment. Peppy arrives at George’s apartment just as he’s about to commit suicide. It’s then when they reconcile and she persuades Georges let go of whatever pride is eating him and star in her next film. I won’t tell you how it ends exactly but it does end happily and on a surprise note.
It’s unique that it shows the swing from the silent world to the sound world as a personal trial of Georges Valentin. The world of silence made him a star, made him beloved and helped define him. When talkies came into play, silent movies went out of fashion and Valentin faded with them. Even despite his insistence of them being an art form, silent movies were not liked anymore. Valentin’s devotion to silence and his anger to his lost fame almost becomes like a source of pride for him as he even goes as far as neglecting the help given from those who act like ‘guardian angels’ to him: Jack, Clifton and Peppy. It’s only in the world of sound, a world Georges feared, that he’s able to recover.
Another thing this movie reminds us is that this world of disposable stars in Hollywood is nothing new. The movie does show a truth that a lot of stars popular during the era of silent films would lose their stardom during the start of talkies to a new era of stars. Does John Gilbert come to mind? And that line from Zimmer that: “The public wants fresh meat and the public is never wrong.” gives us a reminder of what Hollywood is about and always was about. Those who complain that Hollywood is not about the art of filmmaking and ‘all about the money’ are reminded in this film that it always was that way. Even while it has churned out some of the most classic and most beloved movies of all-time, it was still a profits-first system even during its Golden Age. The battle between ‘film as art’ and ‘film as entertainment’ still continues now.
Overall this was an excellent movie that is the brainchild of French director Michel Hazanavicius. He directs, writes and even edits the film. He also includes Jean DuJardin and Berenice Bejo who have worked with him in two of his past productions. Their performances on their own stand out as two of this year’s finest. Often one thinks that a lot of acting involves annunciation of words but a lot of acting is also done in silence too. In fact there’s even one completely mute performance–Holly Hunter in The Piano–that even won an Oscar. And we see the quality of the silent performances in this movie. Supporting performances from James Cromwell and John Goodman also add to the movie and stand well on their own. Also we have the dog Uggie as Jack the Dog who’s as much of a charmer as he is a scene stealer. The accompanying score from Ludovic Bource is also another top quality of the movie that adds to its highlights. The set design and costuming also work perfectly to set the time period. You’d hardly know this was made in 2011. Overall this is a well-organized film that’s as entertaining as it is artistically merited.
The Artist is a very charming throwback to the silent movie age. It retains the charm of silent movies and the era while maintaining an intriguing story and top notch acting. The big question is will its silence be golden on Oscar night? It’s heavily favored. We’ll just wait and see.