What a delight. It definitely helps being a total film nerd when you see it. There are so many film references that make it all the more fun. I noticed references to Singin’ in the Rain, What Price Hollywood?, every version of A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane (more than I would have thought), Potemkin, and performers such as Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly, John Gilbert, Garbo, Chaplin, John Barrymore and Astaire and Rogers, and then I just gave up.
But you don’t have to have a film background to enjoy it. My computer nerd son-in-law, who might have the smallest film background of a person his age, thoroughly enjoyed it.
He also noticed something I try to tell my class about good films: They engage you. They pull you in and expect you to pay attention, think, and remember; a good film is something of an interactive experience. The Artist does that in spades. You have to keep watching, yet the film makes it a joy to do so.
The story is either hackneyed, or classic, depending on your point of view. But it doesn’t matter. The whole film, from the sets to the cinematography to the acting styles, is one joyous look back at silent films around the time sound was introduced. Out with the old, in with the new—nothing new there. But its openhearted, un-cynical perspective makes it one of the freshest films of the year. The film doesn’t send anything up, or look down at an art form that exists only in collections and memory. It celebrates it, but unlike other similar films this year (Hugo, War Horse), does so without a hint of nostalgia.
Where to start celebrating its virtues? The cast and the direction are a happy collaboration of friends and spouses. The director, Michel Hazanavicius has a close friend named Jean Dujardin, the lead here. Hazanavicius also has a wife, Bérénice Bejo, who has the female lead. A group effort from these three after a couple of successful French spy spoofs could have been a disastrous vanity project. Instead, it’s as close to movie magic as one can come.
Dujardin is just the latest in the happy string of people born to play a part. More recently, we’ve had Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, and Jamie Foxx in Ray; historically, we’ve seen the near-perfect blending of actor and part with Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, Brando in The Godfather and going all the way back to the early ’30s with Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Dujardin joins that group here. He exudes the energy and excitement of a dashing and electric screen star. The word irrepressible might have been invented for him. His smile, exhibiting an exquisite joy in being himself, comes off as more contagious than arrogant, though the plot forces him to face that aspect of his character’s personality. He nears jumps out of his skin in every frame. Dujardin might never be able to play Albert Nobbs, but he sure nails the silent screen persona.
Bejo is his equal. Though just four years younger than Dujardin, you would never know it by her fresh young face. Here, she is a cleaned-up Clara Bow crossed with Leslie Caron in An American in Paris. Her big eyes and glorious smile nearly look like digital effects, and that’s a compliment. Both she and Dujardin master the melodramatic acting style (and I mean “melodramatic” in its original going-back-to-18th-century-France definition) of the silents, creating poetry of gesture and visage in every frame.
Much of the credit for that must fall to the director, of course, and Hazanavicius does the near-impossible task of keeping the tone consistent throughout the film. He never gets silly, condescending, or campy. He hits the ground running with a serious, heightened sensibility, and never lets up. Yet he manages moments of great humor, suspense, sadness and pathos. It may be silent, but it’s a real movie, meant to be enjoyed as a story on its own terms. There’s even a surprising “sort-of” twist near the end that had audience members on the edge of their seats.
Music, more important to silent films than most people know, has been the dance partner to the film’s image since near the beginning. There was usually a piano, organ, small band or orchestra playing along before “sound” officially came in. The Artist’s music is the equal of the lovingly photographed images, and has a more important role than in the majority of sound films. Instead of being the unperceived part of the film experience, or trying to tell you how to feel or when to get nervous, the music here is an equal partner to the images. It’s never mere accompaniment, nor an add-on, but a vital, merry companion that exponentially increases our experience.
I can only quibble with two very small bits. One is the casting of James Cromwell as the butler/chauffeur to the lead. Of course he’s good, but somehow, John Goodman’s over-the-top comic persona works much better as the film director. Seeing Cromwell in a servant’s role is a stretch to begin with, and seeing him move from his normal intense naturalistic acting style to incorporating melodrama with its gestures and poses just took me out of the film. So did Hazavanicius’ use of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting, evocative score from 1958’s Vertigo. It occurred in a place where it worked for the film thematically. But its controversial use here was too jarringly modern for the film.
But I carp. These are minor glitches, and may be limited to the few with my particular background. This is a one-of-a-kind film, and won’t be the start of any trend. So grab your chance to see this one on the big screen, and revel in a confluence of perfect casting, spot-on direction, a joyous score, and a thoroughly sneer-free outlook.1933, to