"The Artist" **** (104 minutes)

Sunday December 4, 2011

It has been 84 years since a silent film has won the Academy Award's Best Picture.  1927 also happened to be the first year the Academy gave out awards when actually two films were honored:  "Wings" won "best production" as "the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness"; while F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" was similarly honored as "the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude". 

Come February 26, I predict that "The Artist" will finally break that streak.  There has not been a movie this year that has even come close.

French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has made a film that is truly one for the ages.  At last count, it has garnered best picture nods from critics' groups in New York (both the New York Film Critics Circle and the New York Film Critics Online), Washington D.C., Boston, Las Vegas, and Indiana.  In addition, it has received the most SAG and Golden Globe nominations.  Last spring, Cannes awarded its top male acting prize to lead Jean Dujardin.  Going in, I thought no way could this film meet my expectation.  I was wrong.  It was exceeded.  And by a large margin.

The basic story is as old as cinema itself:  George Valentin (French actor Jean Dujardin) is THE silent medium's biggest star.  With his thin mustache and winsome smile, he is a physical compilation of Errol Flynn, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Clark Gable, and easily brings to the screen bucket loads of charm and charisma.  It is 1927 and he is at the top of his game. 

The film opens with our hero proudly standing directly behind a giant movie screen, gazing up at the reverse  images, while the audience in front is gloriously reacting to the premier of his latest creation.  The smile on his face is as wide as the ocean.  Meanwhile, Constance (Missi Pyle), his co-star, is standing in the wings, impatiently waiting for her introduction-all the while realizing that her popularity, not to mention her ego, is a far distant second. 

On the red carpet afterwards, Peppy Miller, a shy attractive autograph seeker (perfectly played by the director's wife, Bérénice Béjo) is inadvertently pushed onto the walkway in front of the star as he is making his way out of the theater.  When George willingly signs her book and then poses for photos, the paparazzi snap away with the resultant headlines screaming, "WHO'S THAT GIRL?".

Later on, after Peppy, an aspiring actress, lands a bit part with help from George, her career takes off.  With the advent of talkies and George's subsequent refusal to embrace the new medium resulting in his firing by Kinescope Studios mogul Al Zimmer (a cigar chomping John Goodman), the stock market crash, and the dissolution of his marriage from his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller):  George's popularity and financial empire start spiraling downward.  The once proud and prominent star is soon left with nothing but his dog, Uggie (more on him later), his faithful butler, Clifton (the always dependable James Cromwell), and a tiny barren apartment.

The acting by Jean Dujardin must be singled out. His delicately expressive performance, balancing an over-the-top acting style in front of the camera while subtly transforming himself when dealing with his crumbling reality after the camera stops rolling, could easily win him an Academy Award. It is the best most complete performance I have witnessed this year.

Also, look for one of the most romantic scenes I have ever experienced in a darken theater when George first realizes his attraction for Peppy as they are shooting their first scene together.  George slyly causes take after take to be shot so that he can slowly develop his enticement.

Although on the surface, the black and white movie appears to be a gimmick, it is actually a lovingly recreation, not a mocking, of the era.  Hazanavicius has meticulously studied the medium to such a degree that he used film stock that would produce a grainier look.  He even speeds up the film slightly by shooting at 28 frames per second instead of the normal 24, as it is projected on a nearly square screen in a 1.33 aspect ratio.  Moreover, although this is a silent film, it is anything but.  The amazingly lyrical score by Ludovic Bource, with a slight assist by composer Bernard Hermann from Hitchcock's "Vertigo" during a chase scene, beautifully "speaks" the universal language on the screen.  Also, the eye-popping production design by Lawrence Bennett is also worthy of mention and Oscar consideration.

Finally, it's been a good year for dog actors:  Laika (director Aki Kaurismaki's canine) in "Le Havre";  Cosmo the Jack Russell in "Beginners"; the Doberman and dachshund in Scorcese's "Hugo"; Skeletor the adopted greyhound in "50/50"; the bulldog in "Hipsters"; even Rowlf in "The Muppets"-just to name a few.  However, Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier, is the scene stealer of the millennium and well deserving of this year's Cannes Palm Award.  His crowd-pleasing performance only adds to the immeasurable charm this cinematic masterpiece has from start to finish.

It is one thing that director Michel Hazanavicius has so lovingly recreated the silent film and its era, but another to tie in a story and screenplay that will have you smiling, laughing, crying, sad, joyous, and practically dancing in your seat at various points throughout its running time.  I am certain you will feel happier leaving the theater than when you came in, and that you will have a newfound appreciation and understanding as to why audiences around the world first fell in love with moving pictures a long long time ago.

The film started its limited release on November 25 and opens in Baltimore on December 23 on two screens at The Charles.
George (Jean Dujardin) meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) 
on the Red Carpet and pose for the papparazi

Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) reads about her husband's encounter with
Peppy the next day

George and Peppy
George and Uggie

George contemplating his next move after his downfall

Kinescope Studio mogul Al Zimmer (John Goodman)

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