Do you ever feel like life is passing you by? Do you remember life before a smart phone? Considering the myriad of people daily glued to their iPhone, a smart-phone-less world seems unfathomable. Likewise, what magic innovation will make us look back on 2012 and chuckle at how primitive we used to live? This sense of change surrounds the Academy-Award-nominated film, The Artist.
Set in Hollywood from 1927 to 1932, The Artist portrays the fall of the silent film and the rise of the “talkies”. Using black-and-white techniques and no dialogue, The Artist pays homage to the golden age of cinema.
Silence Is Golden
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)) is a silent film star. Sharing the screen with his star sidekick and pet dog, Valentin signifies the best of a fledgling industry. Celebrating his latest premier, Valentin bumps into an admiring fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and makes a show of the encounter for the press photographers.
The next day, Peppy and George’s picture appears on the front page of Variety. Encouraged by the uplifting headline, Peppy endeavors to become a movie star and signs up as an extra in the latest film. Smitten by Peppy, George encourages her to find her voice in the business and she begins to work her way up the credits.
After a couple years, the studio head, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), publicizes the end of silent film production and the beginning of talking pictures. Flippantly, George writes off the talking picture trend and begins funding his own silent pictures.
Peppy, on the other hand, signs with Zimmer’s studio as a headlining actress starring in the latest talking pictures. Coincidentally, both actors’ films debut in the wake of the 1929 stock-market crash. Having invested all of his money in his silent picture, George needs a hit in order to maintain financial viability.
In Defense of Acclaim
On the whole, Michael Hazanavicius’ script breaks no boundaries. An entertaining but well-tread plot, The Artist gains acclaim for its production, cinematography, and acting.
First, the use of silence and black and white is powerful. For the most part, I felt like I was watching a move from the 1920s. From the lack of widescreen to the vintage score, I was caught up in the magic of a “new” medium as a person in the 1920s would have felt.
Yet, I wish they would have cast completely unknown actors. Even though I did not recognize the leads, having John Goodman play a crucial part was distracting. I know him from too many movies to suspend my disbelief.
The use of sound, however, mesmerizes. Without dialogue, the viewer relies on the score and the occasional vintage caption in order to infer the plot. When The Artist chooses to use sound, the effect becomes all the more powerful. Upon learning of the talking picture, George has a nightmare depicted in sound; his glass clanks against the counter, his dog barks, and he hears laughter outside. These simple noises exist in stark contrast to the dreamy score that surrounds the rest of the film.
Second, the cinematography shines. In every scene, it seems like the camera is perfectly placed—not like a modern picture where it’s from an unfathomable angle, but from a classic perspective re-imagined. Whether filming the reflection of an actor or the feet, every shot feels both fresh and classic simultaneously.
Finally, the acting is impeccable. Of course, without sound the actors must over-accentuate in order to convey emotion. Such actions were continuously conveyed perfectly. Having seen George Clooney in The Descendants, Dujardin gets my vote, so far, for the best actor Academy Award. Dujardin’s performance is magical.
A Silent Film in 2012 = Brilliant?
But I question whether The Artist receives its praise for the quality of the movie or for the idea it conveys. Yes, paying homage to the golden age of cinema by replicating it in modern society carries much to extol. Had this story, cinematography, and acting existed outside of a silent, black-and-white film, I’m not sure that I would have liked it as much.
Exploring change while remaining firm in a sense of nostalgia, The Artist reminisces on the beginning of the film industry. With fantastic production, cinematography, and acting, The Artist clearly deserves critical recognition, but I question whether its use of silence and black and white veils the less spectacular portions of the movie. Nevertheless, The Artist is worth a watch.