Steeped in the love and lore of silent film, and already garnering heavy awards season buzz, the French silent film, The Artist, is deserving of the feverish praise it has inspired. This film was written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (this trio was behind the hilarious French caper, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies), and it is hard to imagine a more perfect movie for movie lovers.
George Valentin is the dashing hero of a series of silent action adventure films, aided and supported by his faithful Jack Russell terrier (played by the madly talented Uggy). George doesn't believe that talkies are more than a passing fancy, but as the new technology conquers the screen, he finds his career evaporating. He's already encountered Peppy Miller, a spunky extra girl, who has what the new Hollywood wants, and as her popularity rises, his plummets. Can George's career survive?
The genius of The Artist is the way that every movie cliché is confronted and then given a saucy twist. Does it have echoes of Singing in the Rain and the many versions of A Star is Born? Is George supposed to be John Gilbert, a silent superstar whose career crashed with changing taste in romantic heroes? It doesn't matter. It's all of these, and more. I'm reminded of King Vidor's Show People, one of my favorite silent films, in which newcomer Marion Davies finds fame as her mentor, played with a heady mix of slapstick and angst by William Haines, is left in the dust.
Hazanavicius' attention to detail is superb. The film is shot in black and white and in an old-fashioned Academy aspect ratio (meaning the screen is square-ish instead of wide). Ironically, most people will see The Artist in a digital projection, because multiplexes no longer have the equipment to screen in this old aspect ratio. It's also shot at 22 frames a second (fps), not the standard sound speed of 24fps, to reproduce the experience of watching a silent film on a sound projector, as we do today. (Silent films were hand-cranked, and each cinematographer cranked at a different speed. Each film was marked with the proper speed, so the projectionist could adjust the equipment between 16-24 fps). The Artist even appears to use the same title card font, Pascal, used by MGM in the 1920s.
But so much of the film is pitch perfect, from the Art Deco Los Angeles locations to the score played by the Bruxelles Jazz Orchestra and the interpolation of clever sound effects. There's even a potent quotation from Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo. The cast, which includes John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller, is marvelous, but it is Dujardin whose flamboyant performance makes the film swoon-worthy. From the first sight of Valentin in a swashbuckling modern dress caper, a film within a film, to his ultimate fade out, Dujardin owns this role of a lifetime, which garnered the former sketch comedian a Best Actor award at Cannes. It's witty, emotional, a heartfelt love letter and a bold stylistic statement. A French silent film as Oscar's Best Picture of 2011? I'm voting oui.