The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011): France, Belgium

Reviewed by Christopher Connor. Viewed at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Jean Dujardin has a smile to win them all. With an immensely expressive Hollywood face, Dujardin seems to have no trouble convincing us he’s a star in the 1920’s. Opposite Bérénice Bejo, who he’s shared screen time with before in the French OS:177 series, creates what might be their best performances yet with The Artist.

It’s 1927 and George Valentin is a famous, if not the most famous, silent actor of his time. His charm and humor has everyone eating out of his hands, from the studio heads to the audience. After a hugely successful premiere to his latest movie, Valentin makes the front page with a kiss by a fan who just happened to stumble onto the red carpet. One chance encounter after the next, Peppy Miller, the adoring fan, begins making her way up the movie ladder, first as a simple dance extra then on to bigger, more important roles. Then, the unspeakable happens: talkies come along. When the movies begin to speak, with only his show dog Uggie to keep him company, George Valentin is out of a job and slowly fades into obscurity, reminding us a little of the Norma Desmond character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. But, on the other hand, we have the fresh and upcoming Peppy Miller, newly signed, and destined for greatness. Valentin must now deal with being a nobody while he watches the star he essentially created take over the lime light.

Similar stories have been told before, a silent star trying to deal with the advent of speaking movies, but we haven’t seen it done using the techniques of the silent era and made during our present time when silent movies are rarely even thought of, much less made. Given that context, The Artist surely has it’s place among silent movies, even if it may not be the most innovative or experimental. Not only does it have its place, but this wonderful film also holds its ground among the movies made today, and even goes leaps and bounds ahead.

With The Artist, you seem to forget that you are watching an almost completely silent, black and white, movie. The performances are outstanding, the story charming, and the techniques used refreshing. We are treated to beautifully shot black and white images and a musical score that effortlessly compliments both the comedic and dramatic scenes in the movie. From start to finish, we are swept away to that seemingly wonderful time of Hollywood and the movies. As we witness the last scene, and the applause slowly dies down, The Artist has left us speechless.

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