For the Love of Movies
Who does this? Who makes a black-and-white movie in the 21st century? Who makes a silent film in the 21st century? The Artist: Not in 3D, not in IMAX, not even in widescreen! It’s impossible to imagine anyone even remotely connected to Hollywood — or hoping to bust in — making a movie this audacious. Risky isn’t even the word. Insane might be the word.
The Artist could have been all about the gimmick. Marvelously, it isn’t. And yet its marvelousness is wrapped up in the gimmick. This same story would be very different, and have a very different impact, if it weren’t silent. It might still be, far and away, the best film of the year. But it would be so for very different reasons.
This craziness fell to French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius and one of France’s most famous comic actors, Jean Dujardin. They’ve done something similar before, aping the cinematic past with their duo of 1960s spy spoofs, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio. And those are some hugely enjoyable flicks. But they’ve taken their thing up two or three circles of movie heaven here. This is a celebration of movies, and not only on the surface of its tale, the riches-to-rags odyssey of silent movie star George Valentine (Dujardin) whose fame and fortune nosedives when talkies come along, which happens concurrently with the rags-to-riches rise of spunky Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a dancer turned leading lady who takes to talkies like a flapper to jazz. Their never-quite-consummated romance, which begins with her as a mere fan encountering him from a mob of autograph seekers at a premiere and leads to — purely coincidentally — their working together on a film (and beyond) is itself a metaphor for movie fandom: we worship from afar; some of us dream of being a part of the magic of movies; a very lucky few of us make that happen. The teasing nature of George and Peppy’s relationship very much mirrors how most movie lovers interact with the medium, never quite satisfied no matter how many movies we gobble up, no matter how close we get to being inside that world. And I suspect that Hazanavicius and Dujardin would count themselves as among those remarkable lucky few who do make it; it’s a sweet, deep passion for The Movies that throbs through The Artist and makes it sing.
Makes it sing silently, of course. I bet a million bucks that you will actually forget you’re watching a movie that features no spoken dialogue amongst all the wonderful movie-movieness happening onscreen. Love, adventure, glamour, dancing, tragedy, despair! A bit with a dog! (Actually, lots of bits with George’s unnamed dog, his best costar and life companion. The dog is played by the scene-stealing Uggy, who so thrilled the usually very staid and serious cineastes at Cannes last spring that they awarded him a special Palme Dog prize.) Exotic locales! (Even if the exotic locale is Golden Age Hollywood — it’s time travel!) Forget about all the meta reaching out to indulge the passions of hopeless movie geeks. You don’t need to recognize any of the nods to classic Hollywood — Hitchcock and Singin’ in the Rain, most prominently; though Dujardin looks, breathtakingly, like the love child of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Gene Kelly — to simply feel the thrill of the simple, primal story on offer. This is everything a movie should be: Funny and sad. Exuberant and gloomy. Romantic in all the ways that we use that word. Exciting and thrilling in an edge-of-your-seat way.
I might be wrong about this — please correct me if I am — but I suspect that the many movie watchers who have never seen a silent film (and I’m sure that’s most people, even among those who say they are dedicated film fans) will see The Artist and finally get it. Silent movies worked. It might be hard to appreciate from our perspective, we who are so used to CGI and multichannel digital surround sound, but The Artist reminds us — effortlessly — that there are very good reasons why Hollywood took over the world even way back when, before color and before sound. The sheer power of visual storytelling, of closeups on beautiful faces, of intercutting between here and there, of putting us intimately in places where we could never ever be… The Artist invokes the awesome authority of film as a primarily visual medium by stripping away everything else.
The Artist reminds me that “falling in love with movies” isn’t a metaphor. I can’t stop thinking about this movie. I can’t stop sighing over all its distinctive individual glorious moments: How a Big Twist of George’s action flick A Russian Affair is withheld from us, and we are shown only the audience’s reaction of wonder and delight as they watch at a premiere. How the spark between George and Peppy leaps off the screen without either of them saying a word — my god, the cast here is luminous with the indefinable, ineffable Movie Star “It.” How startling tiny things can be when we end up focusing on only our dominant sense: vision.
No matter how much a critic focuses on conveying her own personal reaction to a film — as I do — we’re always aware that not everyone will share our take on any given movie. Even with that in mind, I cannot see how anyone who loves movies doesn’t fall madly, madly in love with The Artist. Such a person’s approach to movies must be so very alien to my own. If I weren’t already in love with movies, this movie would hook me. But I am already hooked, and have been for so long that it’s sometimes easy to get disillusioned by all the crap. But now… I want to wear creamy off-white silk pajamas and pad around a Bel Air mansion. I want to arrive to a Hollywood premiere in 1928 in a Duesenburg. I want to spend an entire weekend watching black-and-white silent movies and renewing my romance with movies all over again. What could be better?
Oscars Best Picture 2011