The Artist Review

(3.5 STARS)

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a crowd-pleaser through and through. The film is just bursting with wit and energy, and like some of the best and most timeless silent films of old, it doesn’t need to do much to bring a 100-minute-long smile to your face. In fact, it doesn’t do much. The story is one that has been done dozens of times before (including in Singin’ in the Rain, which the film mimics to an almost embarrassing degree). But the borrowed plot really doesn’t get much in the way of you having a grand old time watching The Artist. Best picture of 2011? Probably not. One of the most enjoyable movie-going experiences of the year? Sure.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the hottest movie star in the world in 1927. Along with his trusty canine sidekick, he’s able to charm the pants off audiences while onscreen, and off it, he’s no less charismatic. While posing for the press after the premiere of his latest film, George meets an eager young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). She’s a good sport for the cameras, even going so far as to plant a big kiss on her idol’s cheek. She’s able to parlay this attention into a job as an extra on George’s next film. Though he’s a married man, these two share undeniable chemistry. And though they won’t see each other again for years, they each become instrumental in the other’s life. Working with George helps propel Peppy to the big leagues, and with the talking pictures forcing actors like George out of the business, it’s his young and newly successful friend that can help him overcome the depression that comes with being a has-been.

The film does such an amazing job replicating the terrific tone and sense of humor of the best silent films. When Peppy, alone, sticks her arm through the sleeve of George’s tuxedo jacket and gives herself a loving embrace, one can’t help but think of Chaplain. Ditto the brilliant dream sequence during which George is haunted by sound and the thought that the pictures might not require him to speak. What’s not laugh-out-loud funny can generally be classified as super charming and romantic. Obviously, Ludovic Bource’s score does a lot of heavy lifting, but you can’t understate the importance of Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo to The Artist‘s success. Yes, there have been better performances this year, but without them, no one is talking about The Artist. It’s arguable whether this film would have seen the light of day without their exemplary work.

Both Dujardin and Bejo have worked with Hazanavicius before—on the OSS 117 spy spoofs, both of which I’m completely unfamiliar with. But he really managed to strike gold with them. I couldn’t imagine two other actors working today who’d be more suited (both in terms of personality and physicality) to pull off these roles. Dujardin’s is certainly deeper and more challenging (the places the film goes are darker than you might expect). I think that’s why he’s gotten more praise than his co-star, including a Best Actor prize at Cannes. Bejo, however, is just as good. Though the role loses a little steam right at the point when Dujardin’s role takes a turn, she’s magnetic. Especially early on, Bejo nearly steals Dujardin’s thunder (though I’d argue both are upstaged by Uggie, the dog, who’s as adorable as any other canine this year).

On a craft level, it’s a little harder to evaluate The Artist because it’s just so much different than any other movie out there. Clearly, there’s a lot going on. The costumes and set designs are very period and very detailed. There’s a lot of interesting camerawork going on, especially early in the film when we’re basically watching people watch a movie for five minutes or so. All that leads up to a brilliant sound trick—one of my favorite moments in the movie, when it really dawns on you that this is actually a silent film.

Up for a total of 10 Oscars, the film will likely clean up (unless Hugo picks up some steam). Having now seen the film, all I’ll say is that I wouldn’t begrudge it a win an any of those 10 categories. Hazanavicius’ direction is very assured for a relative newcomer. The score is tremendous. And Dujardin and Bejo are tops, as well. I think the film could have used some tightening (Valentin’s depression phase goes on a little long), and a little more originality could never hurt, but if you’re looking for a fun time at the movies, you could do a lot worse than The Artist. It’s a must watch for film fans, and not just because it’s poised to join the Best Picture club. Rather, watch it because it, like you, is bursting with love and admiration for the movies.

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