Sunday, December 18, 2011

THE ARTIST: Nostalgia, Cinema, and Art


- Once upon a time, Hollywood was a true dream factory. In those early days of cinema, stories were told that were simple, bold, and larger than life. Movies have evolved much since the era of silent cinema, and there's no doubt that movies have gotten deeper, more complex, and more textured, as the medium constantly grows in its sophistication. Of course, the downside of that evolution is that so many movies today are sheer sensory assault. The building blocks of film - ideas, characters, emotions - often get lost amidst a sea of CGI-enhanced sound and fury. Every so often, it's nice to be reminded of the very basic magic that lies at the core of the movies - the simple pleasures that were derived from the mere act of seeing a story play out on a big screen - the magic inherent in the fact that, somehow, we find ourselves invested in these people and stories projected before us. A few weeks ago, I saw Hugo, and it was a poignant reminder of the history and magic of the movies. And now, I can attest to the fact that THE ARTIST holds within it a similar magic. This is a modern film that harkens back to the Silent Era - an homage and love letter to those old movies, but with a distinctly modern and slightly meta spin. Like many of you, I was a bit skeptical about my ability to enjoy this movie. A silent movie? Really? And as the film began, it was bit jarring, I'll admit, to readjust to this very different style of storytelling. As the movie went on though, I realized that something strange had happened - I was totally absorbed, completely invested in these characters. The Artist had worked its spell - I felt transported to another time. The movie, like those old silent films, was big, unsubtle ... and yet, I felt like The Artist was an argument for the primal power of the films of that bygone era. What was old was new again, and somehow, some way, The Artist stands as one of the best films I've seen this year.

French actor Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a star of silent films of the 1920's. When we first meet George, he's on top of the world - beloved by all, the king of Hollywood (or Hollywoodland, as the sign said back then). However, as the years go by, silent films give way to talkies, and George finds himself a relic of a quickly fading era. He's been supplanted by a new wave of movie stars - chief among them the vivacious Peppy Miller - played by Berenice Bejo. Peppy actually got her start in the movies when she met George as a young fan. In fact, when she was photographed planting an enthusiastic kiss on him, it set off a minor scandal that didn't sit well with George's cold fish of a wife. But Peppy's brush with fame inspired her to try her luck in Hollywood, and she landed her first role as a backup dancer in one of George's films. Soon enough, the charismatic actress was headlining early talkie films, even as George's career was dying a slow and ugly death. Refusing to change with the times, George begins a downward spiral. Will the legendary actor reclaim his mojo and shine again? And is the era of silent films, the era that George embodies, lost forever? These are the questions that The Artist poses, and the answers are funny, heartfelt, and endlessly entertaining.

Director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted a movie that is simply gorgeous to look at. The black-and-white cinematography is unbelievably done, and the artistry of many of the shots evokes an earlier time when more care was given to how every scene in a movie was framed. The Artist evokes the movies of the 1920's so completely that it really is like a time-machine, and there's something about the world that Hazanavicius creates that's just completely immersive. I was also impressed with how well he effortlessly switches from moments of bombastic drama to moments of lighthearted comedy. There really is a little of everything here - moments of true darkness, of lightness, of romance, humor, and even some action. There's also a really fascinating, subversively meta streak to the film, where Hazanavicius gets to have fun with the silent movie conceit and throw in a few curveballs, breaking the fourth wall a bit. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that yes, spoken dialogue and audible sound-effects *are* used sparingly in a way that makes sense in the context of the story - but it's done in a way that's totally surprising and clever, and even a little surreal. But one thing I'll say about The Artist, there is some kind of crazy magic to it. I can't count how many times I've rolled my eyes at cheesy Hollwood romance in films ... but something about this unabashed bigness and boldness of the relationship between George and Peppy really worked for me and had me rooting for them. Trust me, you probably don't think that, here in 2011, a silent film could get you this emotionally invested, but The Artist pulls it off.

And man, the cast here is just superb. Like most of you, I wasn't familiar at all with the two leads - but both completely shine. Jean Dujardin has so much charisma and charm that you can't help but pull for the guy. He comes off like he really is some lost film star from the 20's or 30's - he completely gets how to act in a silent film and get maximum reaction. It's a stunning performance, and in many ways it sort of blew me away. Nearly as good in my mind was Berenice Bejo as Peppy. She feels a little more modern than Dujardin's George, but she still has charisma to spare and a true million-dollar smile. There's a chemistry between them that really works, and I'm sure the comparisons will be made to the great screen pairs of days gone by. Interestingly, the supporting cast contains some very familiar faces, each of whom does a fantastic job. John Goodman is awesome as Al Zimmer, the Hollywood mogul who dumps George for Peppy. But I expected Goodman to nail it. I was more surprised by the fact that James Cromwell totally kills it as Clifton, George's loyal butler, the stalwart Alfred to George's Bruce Wayne. Who knew?

Like I said, it took me a little while to get used to the rhythms and style of the film, but soon enough I found myself lost in its black-and-white world. It must also be said that the orchestral score is absolutely phenomenal, and is practically a character in the film. The music syncs perfectly with the on-screen action to create a very different dynamic than what you see in modern movies. It's a return to the very basic building blocks of cinema, and it's a reminder at how a great story can be told simply yet still get us emotionally involved and invested. Yes, one can make comparisons between The Artist and certain classic silent films, but to me this is not simply one more silent film. More than just a relic of another time, The Artist wryly comments on the silent film era, mixing history with nostalgia and throwing in a metatextual sense of self-awareness for good measure.

The Artist is a wholly unique film that, I guarantee, is completely different than anything else you've seen in a theater this year. And yet, despite seeming like an oddity, it's got all the classic ingredients that, even today, are what make movies great - stunning visuals, fascinating characters, pathos, romance, danger, tragedy, comedy, and emotion. Some things, I guess, are simply timeless.

My Grade: A

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