Monday, February 6, 2012

The Artist

2011, Michel Hazanavicius - theatre

The Artist is a film about the silent film era, told in silent film.  It sounds like pretentious art-house fodder, but, like the films of the time, it's populist entertainment, not heavy in its drama, or sophisticated in its comedy.  Yet it is in that very regard that it succeeds.  You believe in the authenticity of this silent film because it is, indeed, a silent film, albeit armed with a modern storytelling sensibility.  It's a bold production in a modern era of Bay-splosions and and Crank-style ADD editing, a film that not only requests your complete attention but your silence as well.  Encouraging a modern audience to keep mum when, in general, the quiet makes them uneasy is a tall order, but the Artist doesn't command your respect, but earns it.

It takes a good twenty minutes, at least, to settle into the rhythm of the picture, to acclimatize yourself to the lack of verbosity, but it comes.  The gestures are broad and the story is simple that it always seems clear what the characters' motivations are.  The film takes place at the dawn of the "talkie", following silent film superstar George Valentin as the world changes around him.  Almost in an instant he goes from the toast of Hollywood to has-been, watching as a young aspiring starlet, Peppy Miller, once an extra on one of his films, surpasses him to become the new darling of film.  Peppy, in her rocket to fame, never loses her crush on George and despite his fall and her rise, like the twist of DNA they keep crossing paths.

The leads of the film, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo remind you how much a film in the silent era depended not on acting ability or directing or sets or special effects, but on attractiveness and,  moreover, sheer charisma.  Dujardin and Berjo have it in spades, with wide, bright smiles that elicit sheer joy, and faces that please even when performing in the most dramatic or downtrodden scenarios their characters face.  Like the film itself, its stars are all charm.

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW*

Above I mention how it seems clear the character motivation at all times.  The emphasis should be on the "seems".  The film critiques the way silent film stars were cast aside once the talkies broke (and erupted in virtually an instant).  Silent film became passe in rapid fashion, and new stars were born.  There's a sense of injustice with the system, careers cut short by technology, when, theoretically there should be no reason why a silent film actor couldn't transition to talkies.  In the film's specific case, George finances his own film, writing, directing, and starring in it, and going head to head against Peppy Miller's first starring talkie, and bombing.  He obviously had a talent but the industry and the system weren't terribly favorable to talent.  They were meat, the product they ground out was disposable (much as it is today), and there was always more where they came from.  Nobody missed them when they're gone.  Except Peppy did miss George, and she tried to help George transition into talkies, but it seemed his pride got in the way.  "Nobody wants to hear me speak," his dialogue card reads.

In the film's finale, Peppy and George have figured out that dance, elaborate and glee-filled tap routines, were the way to not just embrace sound but equally defeat the talkie.  At the end of their staged routine, the camera pulls out and the sound of the stage, including conversation, erupts like a sonic boom.  Their producer Al (John Goodman) shouts with sheer joy "Perfect!" Pauses, then asks, "Can you do one more?"
George replies with his broad, bright smile, and in his own voice as opposed to the one the audience imagined, "With pleasure," which sounds, in Dujardin's thick French accents more like "Wiff pleah-zeehure".

It's that simple moment, that single which shifts the entire context of the film that came before it.  George didn't fight the system and accepted his fate because, frankly, he's not American.  In the silent era, anyone from anywhere, if they had the glint in their eye, could be a star in Hollywood.  But come the talkies, they had to sound the part as well as look it, and George' saying "No one wants to hear me speak" weren't the words of a depressed, suicidal man, but a man speaking the truth.

If you've seen Dujardin accepting any of the many awards for the film over the past few weeks, you're aware of just how thick his accent is, but watching him in The Artist, you're quick to forget just how French he is, and instead you believe he's the biggest star in America circa 1928, but also perhaps wonder why Dujardin, so charming, so entertaining, isn't a big star himself.  "Wiff pleah-zeehure" is why.