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Monday, December 26, 2011

The Artist (Limited Release Date: 11-25-2011)

        It's not very often that you see a movie in theaters that you expect to win Best Picture. Last year, when I finally laid eyes on The King's Speech, it was still looking like The Social Network, all the way. Who could have known, when walking into a sparingly populated theater in the summer of 2009, that The Hurt Locker would eventually take the crown (Funnily enough, I saw it with a friend as part of a double-feature with the goofy mumble-core comedy Humpday; We both preferred the laugher). So yes, it's a rarity to walk in with such absurdly lofty expectations, a burden on the film, really, but these are the exact conditions in which I finally met The Artist, the first silent film with a legitimate shot at winning Oscar's top prize in decades upon decades.

        Yes, you read that right. Silent. With the exception of a few choice moments of sound, The Artist plays by almost all of the rules of the silent era, including being filmed in a fuzzy black and white, and being presented in a 1.37:1 ratio (a square that only occupies a slight majority of today's rectangular screens). The story comes secondary to all of these choices, but, of course, still merits explanation. In the year 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a massive silent-film star. Along with his trusty, omnipresent Jack Russell, he struts and yucks it up with everyone who will give him attention (who is everyone), his wily, cocky demeanor driving his producer (John Goodman) up the wall. Almost on a whim, Valentin decides to promote the career of a young, energetic beauty named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and the two flirt at a romance, despite the fact that Valentin is still in the middle of a loveless marriage. Time, however, is not kind to Valentin, and after the studio decides to go in the direction of talkies, George's star starts plummeting, just as Peppy's is rising.

        There are times, while you're in the middle of watching The Artist, where it can feel like the homework session that it sounds like on paper. These moments, mostly sectioned off into the woe-is-me middle third, hint at the fact that, even while clocking in at only just over an hour and a half, this movie might not have enough story to carry a proper narrative. But, as previously stated, this one was never about story anyways. It's about showmanship, charm, and nostalgic pinning, all of which The Artist has in spades. The performances are just peerless, walking an impossible line between proper emulation of the over-acting of the day, and the more subtle emoting required of today's screen performers. Dujardin and Bejo just look and move like 20's and 30's film stars, the former blessed with unique physical gifts, and a smile with enough wattage to power a small city, the later as bouncy and lovely as the heroine's of the day.

        Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius gets so much right. The costumes, the sets, and the melodramatic tone are all just spot on, as if the flick was dug out of a forgotten time capsule. He does, however, break away from these tropes from time to time, as in those aforementioned uses of sound, and a few camera movements that would have likely proved impossible at the time (not to mention a much-debated use of a piece of the Vertigo score, a movie that came out decades after the time period). At first, I was a tad up in arms over these choices, wondering why Hazanavicius couldn't have just followed his thesis all the way, but with time, I've decided that they are actually his real stab at transcendence. The man takes us through a tour of early technical film history, and as boring as that sounds, it's not... at all. His eye catches and silently explains so much of what makes both silent films, and those blessed with sound extraordinary in their own right, describing the magic of cinema without a sound. As the days have passed since I saw The Artist, the film has grown and grown in my mind, many of its individual scenes likely to stay with me forever. It's not what I would pick to win Best Picture, but as a loving, dazzling, fun trip back in time, and a love-letter to all the things that have pushed movie to where they are today, it's more than well-qualified.

Grade: A-

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