Silent film ‘The Artist’ a delight, rivals films for best of 2011

By Chris Shores

It’s awards season and in a world where movies thrive on breathtaking cinematography, passionate monologues and dazzling special effects, a black and white silent film just crashed the party.

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“The Artist” won three of its six Golden Globe nominations on Jan. 15, including best motion picture, musical or comedy and has garnered nominations for best picture, actor in a leading role (Jean Dujardin), actress in a supporting role (Bérénice Bejo), cinematography, art direction, costume design, directing, film editing, music (original score) and writing (original screenplay).

Had “The Artist” been produced just for the sake of creating a silent film, critics and fans may have written it off. But “The Artist” is itself a story about the end of silent films, and it’s a tale told flawlessly by a brilliant – albeit previously unknown to American audiences – French cast and crew.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his career as a silent film actor in 1927 Hollywood. After the premiere of one of his films, he stands outside the theater mobbed by greeting fans and paparazzi. One of those fans is a young aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and after a chance meeting with her idol, she gains a role in one of his next films. There is instant chemistry between the two, despite the fact that Valentin is married.

But when studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shows Valentin the future of film, the “talkie,” the actor laughs and says audiences will never go for it. Thus begins Valentin’s demise as his studio abandons him and the silent film industry in pursuit for movies with sound. By contrast, Miller’s career skyrockets and soon she is the biggest film celebrity in Hollywood, in part because of her willingness to completely embrace the “talkie” craze.

“The Artist” is not technically a completely silent film because a live orchestra in the front of the theater accompanied true silent films in the early 20th century. But for all intents and purposes, it replicates the experience for the moviegoer. Dialogue is shown on screens of text and even this is used minimally. For the most part, the actors must exaggerate their actions in order to tell the story without words. Dujardin and Bejo truly excel at this both while playing their characters (the actors) and their characters’ characters (in the fictional silent films shown in “The Artist”).

The first scene of “The Artist” is a perfect example of what is to come in the film’s 100 minutes. It begins with an action sequence from a fictional silent film in which Valentin stars. A live orchestra is shown in front of the excited audience. Then, from behind the screen, a shot is shown of Valentin taking in the action. When the film ends, Valentin walks to the stage and puts on a performance hamming it up in front of the audience, with only a few lines of dialogue needed to reveal the actor’s feelings. The background music stops playing and the film reveals a shot of the crowd. The audience is on their feet giving an animated standing ovation, but as for sound there is nothing, only a few seconds of absolute silence.

In his role of the fallen actor, Dujardin (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost In Rio) portrays all the emotions: a love for what he does, the elation of his success, the bitterness of rejection and the utter anger at a life torn completely away from him. It is impressive how seamlessly he can switch between goofily joking around with his dog and throwing his belongings across the room in a fit of uncontrollable rage.

The Golden Globes awarded him Best Actor, Musical or Comedy. If he wants to win at the Academy Awards, however, he’ll have to defeat George Clooney, who took home the Golden Globe for Best Actor, Drama.

Right there with Dujardin is Bejo (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, A Knight’s Tale), who has made audience members (both the fictional ones in the movie and the real ones watching “The Artist”) fall in love with her. In her portrayal of Miller, it seems as if she belongs in that role of the driven, enthusiastic and caring actress. Bejo did in fact inspire the character, as she is the wife of the film’s director and screenwriter Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost In Rio).

The musical score, written by Ludovic Bource, also took home a Golden Globe. It is an impressive score that captures the emotions of the characters and helps to fill the void of dialogue. It also seems to be a fitting tribute to composers of the early 20th century, keeping in the style of the musical scores of 1920s silent films.

As both a tribute to the silent film era, and as a marvelous piece of storytelling, “The Artist” truly is a fun experience for the moviegoer.

Prepare to be transported back to the 1920s. It was a time when there was no cleverly written or intensely delivered dialogue to assist moviegoers with the cinematic experience, only the musical score and the raw acting of the characters on the screen.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]