How does one successfully turn back the hands of time? It’s a trick question filmmakers have been asking themselves since the dawn of motion pictures. For here is a medium that can – and frequently does - a convincing job of replicating the past and present, as well as predicting the future. The camera only knows what it sees; not what is reality. However, it is one of Hollywood’s minor ironies that although they readily resurrect virtually any period in human creation before our eyes, they also generally struggle with their own mythology on the contemporary screen, perhaps because when it comes to recreating Hollywood, filmmakers are faced with not one, but two incongruent and conflicting mythologies; what was Hollywood circa the 1920s-1930s, and what the outside world thought Hollywood was during this same period in time. The impression of Hollywood is far greater than its reality, and perpetuated by the fantasies Hollywood readily told about itself during its own golden age.
I’ve seen a lot of contemporary filmmakers try to recapture this essential magic – at least, stylistically, but with actors miserably failing to inhabit their meticulously crafted sets. One cannot simply ape the theatrical style of acting that used to dominate the art. One has to believe in it as the art itself. But that’s a tough nut to crack. Miraculously, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) sidesteps practically every misfire a movie about Hollywood can make. The screenplay by Hazanavicius is basically a silent version of A Star is Born; charting the meteoric rise of one star’s career and epic crash and burn of another at the dawn of the sound era. Given our present day ‘artistic’ sensibilities for all things CGI and SFX laden, choosing to tell a story in B&W, full frame, and for the most part without a stitch of dialogue, is a fairly gusty move to say the least. Add to this the fact that The Artist has no major stars for instant box office cache and conventional wisdom would suggest that Hazanavicius has given himself an impossible hurdle to overcome.
Ah, but The Artist has Hollywood antiquity in its favour; Guillaume Schiffman’s glowing soft focus and softly lit B&W cinematography and Laurence Bennett’s breathtaking set design that does more than recreate mere atmosphere – it resurrects a bygone era in perpetuity like no film I’ve seen in a very long while. And then there is Jean Dejardin as our doomed star – a dead ringer for Douglas Fairbanks Sr. with drop dead matinee idol looks and a sly megawatt smile of pearly whites. But Dejardin does one better than looking the part. He acts like Hollywood royalty. Ditto for Berenice Bejo; a winsome, fresh faced ingénue who can melt or break our hearts with one subtle glance or panged stare.
Our story begins in 1927, the height of the silent era when more than 20 million people went to their local Bijou at least once a week. The fantasy of make believe had morphed into an assembly line industry overnight. It’s premiere night in Hollywood, a glittery assemblage fronted by silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dejardin). George’s latest feature, ‘A Russian Affair’ (a cross between Metropolis and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse) is packing the audience in. George and his dog (Uggie) mug for fans and reporters outside the theater after the sold out engagement.
In the crowd is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who inadvertently takes a tumble past the police blockade and comes face to face with George. He gives her a glower before laughing off the incident and then encouraging Peppy to share his spotlight. In an impromptu moment, Peppy leans in and kisses George on the cheek, the press capturing the moment for posterity. The next day Variety publishes a splashy spread across its front page. But to the chagrin of George’s boss, mogul Al Zimmer (John Goodman) the focus of the article isn’t on the premiere but Peppy’s kiss with the caption ‘Who’s That Girl?’.
Reading the headline, George’s jealous wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) suspects an affair brewing. George does everything to quell his wife’s fears but to no avail. Meanwhile, Peppy gets a job as an extra at Kinograph Studios. George is delighted to find Peppy once more, but Al – still angry over the Variety piece – orders her off the set. George, whose stardom and clout go a long way, refuses to work unless Peppy stays. Begrudgingly, Al acquiesces and is pleasantly surprised when the public take to Peppy’s near cameo appearance. The studio gradually builds her up with bigger and better parts until she becomes a featured player with renewed success.
In the middle of shooting a ‘three musketeers’ inspired action yarn, Al halts production to invite George to an executive’s preview of a new sound test featuring George’s former co-star, Constance (Missi Pyle). The execs are over the moon for this new technology. But George fluffs it off, telling Al that if sound is the future he can have it. Realizing that George is fast becoming a relic in the business, Al quietly fires him. Disgruntled but undaunted, George decides to make his own silent feature, a sort of King Solomon’s Mines inspired safari adventure entitled, ‘Tears of Love’ starring himself. He uses a considerable chunk of his own personal fortune to finance the picture that goes way over budget.
Meanwhile, Kinograph debuts Peppy in her first talkie. On opening night, George is stunned to see line ups wrapping around the block for her picture while his own is playing to a scant few stragglers inside the cavernous theater where he once knew his biggest successes. The next day, Peppy makes a special trip to George’s Beverly Hills mansion to tell him how much she enjoyed ‘Tears of Love’. But George is rather sullen toward her, more so when Peppy’s date (Dash Pomerantz) rushes to her side to tell George that his father is a huge fan.
The 1929 stock market wipes out George’s fortunes. Doris kicks George out of their home. George and his faithful man servant, Clifton (James Cromwell) take up residence in a smaller apartment. As times become tougher, George quietly hocks his personal effects, first to a pawn broker (Ken Davitian), then to an auctioneer (Basil Hoffman) where two mysterious individuals (Ed Lauter and Beth Grant) quickly buy up just about everything they can get their hands on. Unbeknownst to George, these two work for Peppy as her maid and butler and have purchased the bulk of George’s estate on her behalf.
After he is unable to pay him a salary, George fires Clifton. The ever faithful man servant patiently waits for a reprieve all night long outside George’s house. But by early morning light Clifton and the car are gone. George suffers a nervous breakdown and in a fit of rage torches his entire private archive of movies. Fumes and smoke from the blaze render George unconscious, leaving his faithful dog to lead the rescue by summoning a policeman (Joel Murray). Learning of George’s near fatal incident, Peppy rushes to the hospital, instructing the doctor (Harvey Alperin) to have George moved to her home for a full recovery.
When George awakens he discovers Peppy at his side. The two rekindle their romance and Clifton – who now works for Peppy – tells George to swallow his pride. For someone as self-assured as George this isn’t an easy thing to do. Harder still, when George accidentally stumbles upon all of his things sold at auction inside a cavernous storage room in Peppy’s house. Demoralized, because he thinks himself a complete failure unworthy of Peppy’s love, George goes back to the burned out shell of his apartment, determined to blow his brains out. Thankfully, Peppy arrives in the nick of time, pledging her love and devotion. The two audition for Al in a tap routine and are cast in a big budget musical. Al is elated that George can dance and asks him and Peppy if he can get just one more take. “With pleasure,” is George’s grateful reply. The camera pulls away to reveal the back stage trappings of a working Hollywood soundstage as the technicians prepare to photograph George and Peppy’s tap dance for posterity.
The Artist is an enviable work with inspired bits of genius, especially considering its release at the height of our current era in crass ‘blockbuster’ commercialism. The film is not without its flaws and curiosities, however. For starters, Ludovic Bource’s orchestral score (which won an Oscar for Best Original Score) actually sounds as though it’s ‘borrowed’ whole portions from other well-known film compositions – most audaciously during Peppy’s frenzied rush to rescue George from his suicide attempt. I am almost certain this track is nothing more than a refurbished Bernard Herrmann cue from Vertigo. Also, the Metropolis movie within a movie that begins our story is an overwrought bit of ham acting that really doesn’t enhance our central narrative. It doesn’t foreshadow the rest of the film either. It’s just there, and tends to drag on.
But now, for the good stuff – and there is plenty to go around. Dejardin and Bejo are the iconic silent era couple. They have genuine on screen chemistry – no small feat considering neither speaks a word for most of the film. There are inspired scenes of pure cinema magic peppered throughout. The best of these is probably Peppy’s initial ‘cute meet’ with George’s dinner jacket. She slips her hand into one of its sleeves, then pretends that it is George’s hand seductively caressing her thigh. Berenice Bejo does this moment proud, playing it strictly legit instead of for camp or laughs.
I also was moved by director Hazanavicius’ clever use of sound effects and dialogue. In the first case, sound effects suddenly introduce George to the objects in his dressing room. A high ball clinks against George’s dressing room table. George then topples a few more items across the table’s surface, each making a corresponding sound. His dog barks and there are noises coming from outside too; the laughter of a single chorine multiplied into a cackled from many who seem to be leering at George in all his misery. He tries to scream but cannot, hearing only the sound of his own breath, heart pounding, as a lonesome wind blows between the empty sound stages. This scene ends with another surprise as George awakens from what he perceives to be a bad dream. Only, it isn’t a dream. George has just been given a glimpse into the future of movies – a future that doesn’t include him.
The last sequence in the film is also inspired in its use of the sound field, as we suddenly realize we can hear George and Peppy’s taps against the highly polished floor. At the end of a dry run through of their musical number, we hear their heavy breathing and John Goodman says the first full line of dialogue uttered in the picture; “Could you give me one more?” George grins, nods and says, “With pleasure.”
In all, The Artist is a cunningly crafted film. That much is for certain. But it also has a definite emotional pulse that wells up unexpectedly despite its lack of dialogue. Dejardin and Bejo have obviously absorbed the art involved in making silent movies. They manage to live in their roles, not as stick figures putting on their dumb show, but as flesh and blood protagonists we can really root for and most definitely can hear in our own imaginations. Think that’s easy to do? Think again and try it sometime in front of a mirror. Or simply re-watch The Artist – it is a sublimely engaging masterwork with few equals, for very obvious reasons.
Alliance Home Video/Sony Home Entertainment and The Weinstein Company’s Blu-ray is, in a word, gorgeous. The 1080p B&W image idyllically captures the diffused glow of Guillaume Schiffman’s lush cinematography. Contrast is soft, as it should be, evoking the 1920s imperfect film stock with a hazy glimmer. Fine details pop in close up. Long shots look less refined – again, mimicking ‘old’ movie stocks. Grain is present but subdued. This is a faithful reproduction of the theatrical look of the film and it’s a winner. The audio is 5.1 DTS and very much in service of the story, understated in spots, bombastic in others. Good stuff. Extras are entertaining too. We get 2 min. of bloopers, a 22 minute ‘making of’, 45 min. Q&A with director and stars, and two additional featurettes that take us on brief tours of Hollywood, showing us the sets, costumes and cinematography employed to bring the story to life.
Final thoughts: The Artist is an exciting film in many respects, but it does tend to play more like a novelty than a true American classic of either the silent or sound era. Still, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Much enjoyed, and likely to be enjoyed again in the not too distant future. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)