Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Artist

Silence is golden.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: One very brief crude gesture and some potentially disturbing images

It's hard to believe people in the film industry considered "talkies" a passing fad when they arrived in the late 1920's. Motion pictures were works of art, and like their still counterparts, why would anybody on earth want to hear them speak? Oh, but they did. The Artist is a loving and painful tribute to that turning point in movie history where art gave way to innovation and demand.

George Valentin (Dujardin) -- named so we will conjure up the memory of Rudolph Valentino -- is the king of the silent movie swashbucklers in 1927. With the help of his little dog Uggie, he's invincible on the screen and adored off of it, but his home life is suffering. His wife is unhappy with her walk-on role in the marriage, especially when she sees George on the front page of Variety getting a kiss from a mystery girl.

That girl, Peppy Miller (Bejo), idolizes Valentin to the point of sneaking into his dressing room while playing an extra. She shares a dance with him in a wordless sequence of scenes that depicts their blossoming relationship more economically than a Hallmark greeting card. George gives her a valuable piece of advice along with a beauty mark to her face. Miller shoots up the credit list, from extra to star. Is it that fake mole, or is it something else, like hearing her presumably golden voice?

Valentin's career heads in the opposite direction. His studio scraps silent films at the behest of a cigar-smoking topper (Goodman) who can see the future and it talks. George, one of those people who consider silent film an art, sets out to save his career and his own beloved medium while Peppy looks to save George from ruin.

The Artist is faithful to silent films in so many ways, leading off with title and cast cards in addition to the obligatory dialogue cards. It has so much love for its inspiration, we don't need much convincing to see why Valentin considers a talking film noise pollution. A key scene turns the most mundane of sounds into obnoxious intrusions, interrupting a symphony of music and lighted images.

Silent films forced filmmakers to pay more attention to nuance and gestures, and director Michel Hazanavicius doesn't miss a beat. Neither does Ludovic Bource, who composed the film's soundtrack with all the intensity and emotional pull of original silent films, which were designed to play with your emotions.

I enjoyed the world of The Artist. So many films talk so much and say so little. Here's a film that talks little and speaks volumes.

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