Critical backlash and a groundswell of negativity rise at this time of the year in the world of film. The various creative guilds and the major critics groups have issued their nominations for the best films and performances of the past year, all in the hopes of being able to sway the minds and opinions of members of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, the people behind the Oscars, the top dog in the hunt.
Usually a film or two emerges from the pack, ones that amass a sizable collection of honors. Almost without fail, those films find themselves on the receiving end of harsh mid-stream defections. What was once full-on love transforms into nit picking at flaws that were initially ignored or not even noticed.
And now, it seems, we have a readymade case study on display with The Artist, the new film from Michel Hazanavicius, which, much like My Week With Marilyn and Hugo, casts its gaze to the early days of cinema. Here, Hazanavicius goes all the way back to 1927, when George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) was a titan striding across the silent screens of the age. Valentin had full command of his every gesture and, through those broad gestures, every member of the audience enraptured, especially women. He was classically tall, dark and handsome: a romantic hero and a man’s man. In other words, Valentin was a star, possibly the first mold — cinema’s Adam before the rib plucking.
But, of course, like any good drama, we get to see that moment when Valentin’s rib gets snatched (he’s not napping, rather it gets pilched while the paparazzi flashbulbs pop and distract him) by one Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a perky, young would-be dancer who seizes an opportunity to get her picture snapped alongside the star.
In that instant, she’s reborn, this lady Eve, and off to the races with her own spot in the cinematic constellation in the not-too distant future.
Her rise runs parallel to the emergence of talking pictures, which Valentin dismisses without a thought. He is the star attraction, the artist, and nothing, especially the arrival of sound, is going to change or alter his place in the celestial firmament.
It is a case of pride before the fall; we’ve seen it all too often. Miller becomes the studio darling while Valentin bets the farm on himself, sinking all of his financial reserves into a film that he believes will define him as a true and lasting artist. But it fails and the Great Depression completely KO’s him.
Nothing in The Artist comes as much of a surprise, not even Hazanavicius’s decision to go silent. In fact, it is his insistence to re-create the silent film narrative that allows his real genius to emerge. The Artist harkens back to that simpler age with such gusto and zeal that it forces the audience to let go of their own cynicism, that jaded sense of having seen it all. In place of that, The Artist dares to let its old world grace and wonder take over.
And the grace sneaks up on us in the performance of Dujardin, the sly French comic actor from the OSS 117 Bond spy parodies, who looks like he literally stepped out of a movie poster from 1927. We praise the rubbery face of Jim Carrey, but what he offers is an obvious exaggeration — overplayed mugging for the camera — which is the lowbrow version of what Dujardin provides (much like the silent film stars from back in the day).
Dujardin, like a great stage actor, knows he is only trying to reach those in the back of the theater or just that one person in a seat before the screen, so he’s more in control of the expression, better able to hone it down and to shape it into something that resembles human emotion.
This means that viewers can get caught up in Valentin, as a character and a person, and forget about the lack of dialogue and even the occasional written snippets that pop up. There’s music, a host of subtle and not so subtle cues, lots of movement (including spectacular dance sequences) and performances to guide us.
The Artist makes a strong argument for film as an escape from the modern escapist fantasies. It doesn’t mean anything — that’s what some critics are crying now — but since when did we decide that movies always have to have meaning?
We have pushed the boundary so far that Hazanavicius seems to be telling us all to turn around here and find the innocent paradise in the dark that we’ve lost. Grade: A (tt stern-enzi)