Saturday, December 24, 2011

Silents, Please: Artists At Work

Only one silent movie has won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but in 2012, that number might double.

In a world of movies filled with Dolby sound, CGI, Imax and 3-D, the idea of making a silent movie just like the ones in the '20s seems quaint, and maybe crazy. How can such a movie match up to Transformers, Harry Potter, or even Bridesmaids?
Michel Hazanavicius, who was well-known for making two very stylish spy films, came up with a way called The Artist. It has the look of an old silent flick of the 1920s, but has a few modern tricks up its sleeve to tell the story of a silent film star who couldn't accept progress, and played a bitter price, only to recover thanks to a girl who owes her success to a chance meeting.

In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) was a dashing matinee idol, kind of like a cocky Douglas Fairbanks. By chance, he meets a girl named Peppy (Berenice Bejo, aka Mrs. Hazanavicius). Their meeting makes Variety, much to the concern of George's wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). To say their passion is rather chilly is putting it mildly. Her favorite pastime is doodling on George's face in the magazines.

Peppy manages to land a job at George's movie studio, and it's clear they have a connection. It doesn't lead to romance, but it inspires her. Then George is hit by a one-two punch: the Crash of 1929 and talkies. Both lead him to a road of ruin while Peppy's star is on the rise.

As I mentioned, Hazanavicius uses some great tricks to keep the story going. When George is confronted by the "threat" of talkies, he finds himself in a world filled with sound, while he stays silent. George and Doris' fading love is illustrated by a scene that may remind people of the "breakfast table" scene in Citizen Kane, which was also a portrait of a marriage gone sour. When George's self-produced movie fails against talkies, he drinks, and sees a miniature version of himself on the bar. Even the marquees show themselves to be a Greek chorus. Why else would we see a movie title called "Lonely Star" just after George is forced to sell his belongings?

Dujardin is wonderful as George, a man who is frightened by the future despite his bravado. His slow collapse is hard to see, and you wonder why he won't take a risk at people hearing him on film. If you notice early in the film, he's interviewed on the radio. Bejo is also dazzling. You can just see her develop her personae from typical girl to movie star. All the while, she never forgets George.
If there's a scene stealer, it has to be Uggie as George's dog. It's a pity he can't be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
If The Artist comes to your town, please see this movie. It is poised to dominate awards season. There may be some who may dismiss this movie because the fact that it's a silent film is a gimmick. They'd be wrong, of course. Hazanavicius uses the lack of words to its advantage. You don't need Doris to say she's unhappy being married to George. Just see her ruin his pictures. You don't need to hear his despair. Seeing him burn his films but not want to leave the flames is proof. It's all about the visuals.

If I had my way, I'd run this as a doubleheader Hugo, Martin Scorcese's latest movie and proof that he can even do family films. The trailers may suggest it's about a boy who is trying to repair a mechanical man, but it's really how this boy completes a more complicated job: repairing a human soul. Namely, an old man who thought his career in the movies wouldn't be remembered. Thanks to this young boy, it is. I saw it in 3-D only because I wanted to see what it would be like. It looks really good, but 2-D will still do.

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