Judge William Lee has nothing bad to say about this movie.
"I won't talk! I won't say a word!"—George Valentin
The Best Picture winner at the 2011 Academy Awards is a lovely homage to Hollywood's silent era and a perfectly pleasant viewing experience, almost everyone agrees. However, some think The Artist is overrated and didn't deserve to take home the golden statuette. Those people must have expected a very different showbiz awards show. Just how often does the Oscar go home with the year's most culturally significant, socially daring or truly groundbreaking film? So The Artist joins the ranks of Crash, Chicago, Driving Miss Daisy, Shakespeare in Love, and others, that took the big prize but will always be talked about with the qualifier that there were "better" films that same year. Pay attention to any of that and you'll be missing the most delightful film of 2011.
Facts of the Case
It's 1927 and movie idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, OSS 117: Lost in Rio) can do no wrong. His movies are a sensation and his dashing charm enthralls audiences. With his guidance, a plucky dancer named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, A Knight's Tale) breaks into the biz and quickly garners some notice. When George is shown a new technology—recorded sound synchronized with the image on screen—he unwisely dismisses it as a gimmick that won't catch on. But audiences flock to the new talkies and Peppy's star rises while George's stock plummets. To prove that traditional cinema is still alive, George stakes his personal fortune to make a great epic silent movie.
It would be wrong to reduce The Artist by describing it as a gimmick or a one-trick pony. That the movie is shown black and white without synchronous dialogue and sound effects certainly makes it unique compared to other movies of its day but it's an appropriate artistic choice. After all, it is a story about a silent film star in the 1920s. Imagine a comic book superhero movie in black and white without CGI effects—now that would be a gimmick because it would sharply counter the conventions of its genre. Surely, the filmmakers' commitment to the style of The Artist is daring for a new movie and it definitely makes it a memorable one.
The actors are pitch perfect and a lot of that must be credited to director Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies) for knowing exactly the kind of performances he wanted. Without scripted dialogue to lean on, the actors use pantomime for much of their scenes and they do so with conviction. There isn't any winking at the camera or hammy acting to signal that they're aware of the outdated performance style. It's actually a pleasure to see these talents committed to this particular style of acting and doing it so well. There is a scene, simultaneously humorous and romantic, when Peppy manipulates the sleeve of George's empty jacket, showing both her affection for George and her longing for the glamour of showbiz. In another scene, Malcolm McDowell (Easy A) has a wonderful moment when his body language and a gesture of his hand summarize his entire conversation with an enthusiastic Peppy. The acting in these scenes is so economized and elegant. It's a marvel that so much is communicated without dialogue. For contrast, just think of a typical recent romantic-comedy and recall how much time is spent on banter that says nothing.
Jean Dujardin won the Oscar for Best Actor in this role despite his heavy French accent and flimsy knowledge of English (of course, he doesn't need to speak in this movie). If anyone has ever pulled a fast one on Academy voters it was Dujardin but his performance is just that good. Drawing inspiration from Douglas Fairbanks, Dujardin finds the right mix of arrogance and charisma for George Valentin. The stylistic limitations of the film definitely restrict the depth of George's persona but what we see on the surface is convincing. We admire his verve even though we know his faith in silent cinema is foolhardy. A sincere portrayal of this kind of character, as Dujardin has done, we haven't seen in the movies for several decades.
When modern movies recreate silent cinema it's usually with some irony or subtle suggestion that today's movies are better than those ancient reels. This attitude is typically signaled by very broadly expressive pantomime, action that appears sped up and footage that intentionally looks scratched. The Artist doesn't use any of those conventions and never treats its style as camp. It is a sincere attempt to make a silent movie employing the techniques of that era and by doing so it speaks to audiences in the classic language of movies.
A key location is the movie studio's office building with several flights of stairs exposed in an atrium. George and Peppy pass each other on the stairs and pause for a conversation but their direction of movement is the other statement about their relationship. George is always seen descending stairs while Peppy is always moving up. This is one of many moments in the movie that are textbook examples of how the visual style of movies communicates unspoken messages to viewers. More than just low-hanging fruit for film students to pluck, the staging of these sequences is a reminder that audiences can be left to "read" a scene when dialogue or narration isn't there to guide them. Most filmmakers these days assume their audience isn't even paying attention unless something is blowing up or flying toward the camera.
Why did audiences in 2011 respond with such affection to this old-fashioned movie? I don't know if its makers had such intentions but I think viewers unconsciously regarded The Artist as an antidote to the current trend of movies that have taken over screens. I don't have any statistics or surveys to cite but my conversations with fellow moviegoers and from reading editorials suggested that 2011 was the year audiences felt they'd had enough of the new 3D gimmick. Anecdotal evidence left me with the impression that more and more people were seeking out movies that were not in 3D whenever they had the option. Yet, this was the year when Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese—four very respected and arguably very traditional directors—made their first 3D movies. I don't think The Artist is a direct comment on 3D or the general state of movies today. However, I believe part of the positive response to the film is connected to our weariness for technological tricks in lieu of good storytelling and acting.
I'm not sure what the movie's position on technology is considering George's fate. Are we meant to admire his artistic resolve or frown at his lack of imagination? Sound triumphs over silence in this movie, as it did in real life, so does the movie ultimately argue for adopting the new technology? Was Spielberg able to expand his talents in a new dimension with The Adventures of Tintin? Were stereoscopic visuals a revelation for Wenders's Pina? Did Herzog justify the use of 3D in a documentary with Cave of Forgotten Dreams? Did using the new technology in Hugo enhance Scorsese's skill with story and characters?
Indeed The Artist employs visual effects, as does every movie that can afford it, but it has the good grace to make those special effects invisible. So, we have a movie that is convincingly old-fashioned because we can pay attention to the performances and the story and we can admire the handiwork of the craftspeople. It's the kind of movie that can be enjoyed without the distraction of gimmicks and that's why it is such a success.
The movie's gorgeous black and white cinematography can really be appreciated on this high definition release of The Artist (Blu-ray). The image is clean, the transfer is completely free of visible compression artifacts, but what's also missing are those super-sharp fine details that pop out when new movies are given the HD treatment. The picture is as sharp as it needs to be and the contrast is crisp but the movie's look retains a subtle, soft sheen. It looks very much like a classic black and white film that has been newly struck and is being projected for the very first time. Preserving its theatrical picture ratio (IMDb reports that it was shot in 1.37:1 ratio), the movie is presented in 1.33:1 full frame format. The nearly square 1080p image will appear with black bars on either side when viewed on 16x9 monitors.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is a wonderful way to hear Ludovic Bource's Oscar-winning score. From the joyously big and melodramatic crescendos to the light and lyrical main theme, the music sets the tone perfectly and the uncompressed audio features it well. Perhaps the surround mix is unnecessary though since there is little need for directional sound effects. The few instances of synchronized sound still emanate from the front speakers. The rear speakers are mainly used to fake the reflection of the music from the back wall.
A handful of bonus materials are included on the single disc, none of which is especially revealing but they're nicely produced featurettes that celebrate the craftsmanship of the film. "The Making of an American Romance" is a 22-minute piece with some typical EPK-style content and sound bites. It includes a brief history of early cinema technology to help ground audiences in the era. Most of the principle cast sits down for interviews and James Cromwell (Secretariat) is prominently featured because he has a knack for expressing the themes of the movie. They spend a little too much time recapping the movie, however, so the interviews are somewhat unnecessary for viewers that have already watched it.
A 45-minute Q&A session with the cast, director and producer is included. It isn't identified when the chat was recorded but it looks like it was intended as an extra for this disc. Considerable effort was taken to light the cast on the theater stage (eight people including the moderator and translator) and record quality audio. I've never seen a post-screening chat session look as polished as this one.
"Hollywood as a Character" is a five-minute featurette focusing on the locations used in the film. Particularly noteworthy are the Mary Pickford house and the Bradbury Building (also prominent in Blade Runner and (500) Days of Summer). This is a nice, short featurette that gives shout-outs to the real locations but doesn't spend enough time considering the art direction and set decoration that was necessary to take these real places back in time.
"The Artisans" is an 11-minute segment focusing on the craftspeople behind the scenes. It's broken up in to four sections: production design, cinematography, costumes and composer. The section I liked most was the costumes because it pointed out the deliberate decisions made by the wardrobe people that I didn't explicitly notice but almost certainly felt when watching the movie. How the contrasting tones of George's clothes reflected the status of his celebrity, for example. The color behind-the-scenes footage is an insight on how careful the cinematographer's color choices must be to achieve the right tone of grey.
The two-minute blooper reel is a pleasant but forgettable compilation of clips. It would have been more interesting to see and hear how Michel Hazanavicius gave direction or how the actors delivered their dialogue for this kind of movie. Of course, it's quite possible that no sound was recorded on set since it would have been a pointless exercise in the end.
The beautiful HD transfer makes this Blu-ray Disc an easy recommendation. Unfortunately the extras don't deliver an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the movie but perhaps it was too much to hope for a translated version of a commentary track by Hazanavicius. Sony's release of The Artist (Blu-ray) includes a digital copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a scene early on that uses synchronized sound in a jarringly hyper-real manner. The effect is striking for the emphasis it puts on film craft that we take for granted. When I saw this scene for the first time, I almost expected the movie to progress in a more fantastical direction and imagined how it might transcend the genre on which it was modeled. I was briefly disappointed when that wasn't the case but I was also relieved that the movie was sticking to its premise. That scene appropriately bent the rules for effect. The rest of the movie plays by the rules and is better for it.
Forget the marketing hype and hyperbolic praise—those practically invited the inevitable backlash against The Artist—and you have an entertaining movie that works on a number of levels. From the craftsmanship of its production, to the perfect performances and the enchanting music score, there is plenty to appreciate in this movie. There were surely more significant movies in 2011, ones that had more intense acting, more important messages, more impressive special effects and more originality. But I don't think there was another movie that was as easy to enjoy as The Artist. And I didn't even mention the dog yet.
Not guilty of stealing an Oscar. It's a winner.
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