When The Weinstein Company announced last week just before the kick off the Cannes Film Festival that they had picked up Michel Hazanavicius‘ “The Artist” it was certainly a surprise. Harvey and Bob laid down big bucks for a film that, in this age of CGI and 3D blockbuster pictures, seems like box office poison. A silent film, in black and white, led by two French stars that are virtually unknown in the United States, it doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that, outside of arthouse buffs, would catch on with a broader audience. But, the Weinstein instincts were right on as screening this morning for critics, not only did “The Artist” play like gangbusters to critics who applauded the film at various points during the film but more importantly, Hazanavicius’ film is a pure joy. Wildly entertaining, with a big generous heart, “The Artist” is not just an exercise in old school filmmaking, it’s a beautifully told story that is classic and timeless in feel.
The film opens in 1927 at the premiere of “The Russian Affair,” the latest hit by silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Cut from the same cloth as Douglas Fairbanks, George is dashingly handsome, a charmer and he even has a little Jack Russel terrier as his constant onscreen and off screen sidekick. Outside the theater hobnobbing with the public and press he literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a beautiful young woman standing outside the theater and putting on a show for the press he gives her a big kiss on the cheek. The next morning, the front page of Variety has the snap with the headline: “Who Is This Girl?” She uses the brief publicity to nudge her way as an extra into a film, and seeing each other again on the studio back lot, George and Peppy begin take a fledgling, mostly innocent interest in each other. She lands a small part in his next film “The German Affair” in which they briefly dance together, but George ruins take after take, spending far too much time in the arms of this new ingenue.
With the door now open, Peppy begins her rise in Hollywood and conveyed in a lovely montage sequence that shows her numerous films and her name moving slowly up the credit roll, and we next arrive in 1929, where the young actress is now a huge star and the year marks two momentous events. First, Kinograph studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shows George talkie test footage and announces that it will be the wave of the future. George laughs it off as a fad, telling Al, “If that’s the future, you can have it.” He decides to fly in the face of the way filmmaking is going and finance, direct and star in his own new silent film “Tears Of Love.” But stakes on the success of this venture are raised by the second big event of 1929, the stock market crash. Of course, as fate would have it, “Tears Of Love” opens the same night as Peppy’s latest film, “The Beauty Spot” and the results for George are heartbreaking. With lineups around the block for Peppy’s film, “Tears Of Love” is sparsely attended and now broke and a sudden pop culture relic, George — whose wife just left him — moves into a small apartment to mourn his past, lick his wounds and try to figure out what to do next.
While the film might be silent, the emotions surging through “The Artist” are loud and clear. With shades of “Sunset Boulevard,” George perhaps isn’t as theatrical as Norma Desmond, but their pain is similar. That feeling of being forgotten sears his heart and his pride. Meanwhile, Peppy enjoys her newfound success but she mourns for George, the man who helped make her star — giving her the beauty mark that allowed her to stand out — and she can’t help feeling that she must do what she can to help him find a new path in a Hollywood that has made a swift and sudden change seemingly overnight.
As you know, Hazanavicius conveys this entire silent era story as a silent film. But he’s not just using that Academy ratio and genre affectations as a crutch or simply as tool for homage. He embraces them wholly and instead of finding limitations, using the medium in a way that is not just expressive but makes it seem like new all over again. The shot composition is tremendous stuff. One particular scene of George leaving a meeting with Al after being old he’s being pushed aside for new, younger talent is breathtaking. The camera stands back showing four floors simultaneously of the studio offices as George, now just an anonymous nobody, makes his way down the stairs, just another person in sea of people. It’s Fritz Lang worthy. And Hazanavicius gets plenty of other behind the camera help as well.
As the composer, Ludovic Bource‘s work is integral to keeping the film moving in absence of dialogue and he steps right up the challenge. Easily one our favorite movie scores of the year so far, it’s wide ranging piece of work, evocative but not beholden to the era, romantic, buoyant and dramatic and just a great selection of music (though yes, Bernard Hermann‘s score for “Vertigo” is used near the end of the film). Costume designer Mark Bridges, a regular collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, gets the cast looking fantastic particularly Bejo who shines in beautifully decadent clothes from era, and some lovely little chapeaus as well. And shooting on back lots in Hollywood, director of photography Guillaume Schiffman does a great job of finding a new way around what could have been limiting set of options giving real life and flavor to late 20s/early 30s buildings and streets. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the production was given access to iconic places like Mary Pickford’s home — which Peppy lives in — to help set the mood.
We can’t remember the last time a film felt magical, but that’s the only word to describe “The Artist.” A big blast of pure delight on the Croisette there is no doubt at this point that “The Artist” has vaulted itself into a frontrunner at for the Palme d’Or. The Weinsteins will still have a marketing challenge ahead of them, but that has never stopped them before, and given the near unanimous and deserved praise for the film, word from Cannes will definitely be a big boost. But perhaps most importantly, “The Artist” is just flat out entertaining. In this era when technology and brands seem to precede ideas and talent, Hazanavicius’ film is a reminder that a good story, with great acting (Dujardin gives a breakthrough performance) that delivers (more than) what it promises will always go further than gimmicks and temporary pop culture phenomenons. [A]