“And your life, all its light attachments loosened, rose above everything, as far as the space opened, filling the world's rapidly cooling emptiness.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
French director Michel Hazanavicius’ surprise hit The Artist is a charming recreation of the silent film era of the late 1920s that focuses on how the advent of talking pictures spelled the end of careers for those silent film stars who could not or would not make the transition. Shot in color, then transferred to black and white, the film’s combination of form and style captures a time of simplicity in which movies reflected creativity and imagination as much as their ability to make money. The film introduces the wonderful French actor Jean Dujardin to Western audiences and he is irresistible with his broad smile, thin mustache, and snappy dance steps that suggest Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
The artist in question is George Valentin (Dujardin), a silent screen star who downplays the advent of talkies to his gruff producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), calling it a passing phase. George still has thousands of loyal fans who swarm around him at every opportunity and lives a life of comfort with a huge house in Hollywood, a lovely wife, and a loyal dog. All of these comforts are threatened, however, when George meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a dark-haired beauty who is a talented dancer and actress with potential star power.
Valentin begins a flirtation with her and, much to the chagrin of George’s wife Doris (Penelope Anne Miller), they are photographed together in Variety magazine, an incident that reminds Doris of how unhappy she is with George and eventually leads to the breakup of their marriage. George is called yesterday’s man by his producer and, as Peppy starts to climb the ladder to success, George’s star recedes, but he does not give up easily. Refusing to participate in talking films, he leaves Zimmer and sets up his own company to produce a silent adventure film but it bombs at the box office while people line up to see Peppy in her debut films.
As a result of George’s reluctance to act in talkies and the stock market crash of 1929, he loses his loyal driver Clifton (James Cromwell) and falls into bankruptcy and flirts with alcoholism. One member of the family always by George’s side, however, is his loyal dog, a loving companion whose swift-footed action saves his life when he is trapped inside a burning house. Peppy remains his friend and looks after George when he is injured in the fire and brings him to her house to convalesce. Though she admittedly used him to get her break in the industry, Peppy sincerely wants to have George get back into acting and offers him a script reluctantly approved by Zimmer, but he demurs.
Before despair takes further hold, however, the film takes you where you would least expect to go and surprise follows surprise. An homage to the comedies and musicals of the silent era, The Artist is a film that bursts with enthusiasm and life. Though it may be lightweight (some have even called it ”fluff”), it can nonetheless break new ground if it can serve as a reminder, not only of what we have lost in our films with their increasing subservience to technology and corporate greed but, more importantly, of what has gone missing from the quality of our lives.
©2011 Howard Schumann
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