Wednesday, September 5, 2012

2011: The Artist

Silent film star George Valentin is on top of the world...that is, until the talkie era sets in.  George refuses to make the transition, and begins to fade into obscurity.  On the other hand, Peppy Miller, who got her start as an extra in a Valentin movie, shoots to fame in talking pictures.  As George's world spirals out of control, all of Peppy's dreams come true.  But Peppy happens to be in love with George, and that might just be all he needs to get his life back on track.

The Artist is a very unusual movie for many different reasons.  Most obviously, it is a silent film from the 21st century.  As the film itself portrays, once movies started talking they never looked back.  Until now.  But even for a silent film it's unusual.  It almost feels wrong to call it a silent film, since sound plays such an important role in the story, and there are a few sequences that use sound.  When George stubbornly decides to make his own film without sound, he has a dream that everything makes sound except him.  It's an eerie scene: the instrumental soundtrack temporarily disappears, and various clunks and thuds are heard, then the barking of a dog and the ringing of a telephone.  One could almost say Sound is the villain in this movie, at least until George learns to work with it in the end.  This is what makes it so different from other silent films: it's silent by choice.  In the same way that Schindler's List was black and white to emphasize the darkness of the Holocaust, The Artist is silent to emphasize George's struggles with sound.  It's a film technique, rather than a medium, as silent film was in the 1920s.  And it works beautifully.  The lack of audible dialogue aids instead of hinders the telling of a moving story, portrayed by actors with faces that would make Norma Desmond proud.  Jean Dujardin is adorable when he laughs and smiles, and heartbreaking when his character is at the end of his rope.  And Bérénice Bejo has fabulous, subtle facial expressions, which is rather surprising given the over-exaggerated faces one might expect from a silent film.  And I'll never say anything against adding a cute dog to a movie, particularly when he's so much like Asta from the Thin Man movies.  The cinematography and soundtrack are equally beautiful, and the story is both tear-jerking and uplifting.  In short, this is a wonderful film, and that's coming from a viewer who generally only enjoys movies with witty dialogue.

If I had to fault this film, I would say that it's a little too much like Singin' in the Rain.  Both movies, in a nutshell, are about a self-centered silent movie star who has trouble making the transition until a young, up-and-coming woman convinces him to make a musical.  At the beginning of the film, I actually thought, "How odd, a silent remake of a musical."  But The Artist delves into much darker themes than Singin' in the Rain, and besides the beginning and the very end, it's very much its own story.  And anyway, I like Singin' in the Rain, so I don't mind that this film emulates it to a certain extent.

Since I loved this and the previous year's winner so much, I can't wait to find out what next year's winner is!  Although, now that I've said that, I'll probably hate it, but I'll just have to wait and see.

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