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DRE #444020

Film Review

The Artist

It's hard to imagine a French director making an homage to American silent films, and doing it well, but Michel Hazanavicius has just turned out a brilliant film, "The Artist". He has looked closely at the eclipse of silent films by the revolutionary talkies. Beginning with the first major talking film, "The Jazz Singer," in 1927, audiences were captivated. Two years later, no one was making silent films. Many of the stars faded into obscurity, unable to make the transition to sound. Their wonderful expressiveness didn't work with sound. Foreign born actors had a much more difficult time because the studios were convinced that accents would not be accepted by American audiences. There were other effects: musicians that furnished the sound were suddenly unemployed and audiences that were accustomed to talking during the film became quiet. Robert Sklar, a film historian, cleverly said that "talking audiences for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures". Silent films became part of our history, now rarely seen other than by diehard film buffs.

"The Artist" is a black and white silent film, with printed captions, dramatic music, and actors' movements that seem right out of the early 20's. In this film, the jerky movement was accomplished by slightly increasing the playback speed. In fact, if you didn't know this was a modern re-creation, it would probably take half the film to know it was just made. The story tells the decline of George Valentin, an important fictional star, played by Jean Dujardin, as he refuses to accept talking films. Valentin is always on, mugging for the photographers, but immensely charming. Usually in a tuxedo, with slicked back hair and mustache, Dujardin looks like he has just stepped out of a silent film. In fact he has. He is accompanied by what must be the cutest dog ever seen on screen, a Jack Russell terrier named Uggy, and alone worth the price of the film. Valentin's faithful chauffeur, played by James Cromwell, is spot on. But Valentin's private life, with a cold marriage, is less happy. In contrast, a very pretty, talented ingenue, Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo (in real life, Hazanavicius' wife) meets Valentin by literally bumping into him on the sidewalk, and begins her rise to stardom. First as an extra, then as a dancer, then minor parts, and finally a star. She falls in love with Valentin, but since silent films adhered to the Hays Code which never permitted kissing, her love is expressed by a marvelous scene in which she wraps herself in his coat in his dressing room. Their tap dancing numbers together, which are a marvels in themselves, was a standard silent film expression of love. A scene of the two meeting on a studio staircase, he walking down, she going up, is not only beautiful, but the perfect expression of the story.

"The Artist" is 100 minutes of the most wonderful entertainment. It is impossible to leave this film without feeling exhilarated, having been transported back to a long vanished world. But make no mistake, this is a sophisticated work, with humor, tension, sadness, and much more. Hazanavicius wrote the script and directed, borrowing liberally from well known early films. Every scene is beautiful, and many were shot on locations in Hollywood. Peppy's house is Mary Pickford's mansion, and there are many other landmarks. Silent film fans will find many references to important films in The Artist", from Valentin's name to the use of a small dog. So many of the fine minor characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever watched a silent film. The score uses some of Hitchcock's music from Vertigo, but most of the music is original. Each chapter's music perfectly tracks the situation, and sounds so 20's. Although the film is silent, there is a very clever brief use of sound in one scene. Both leads are unfamiliar to American audiences, but the acting is tremendous, and both will surely be nominated for Oscars.

I loved this film, and began to understand how good silent films could so charm audiences. "The Artist" is such a visual delight and should be seen on the big screen. It is truly poetic, and a wonderful expression of a French director's love for American silent films. Just opened at the Embarcadero but will soon screen at the Kabuki as well.

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