Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Artist


Who would have thought that the trio of writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, his wife actress Berenice Bejo and actor Jean Dujardin, all probably better known for their comical spoof of the spy genre with the OSS 117 movies, could have pull out all the stops and made such an affecting romantic film that epitomizes all things great about an era of cinema long gone, providing that pitch perfect nostalgic feel and homage to the black and white greats of the old days where films meant dressing up, the acting almost always exaggerated, the reading of inter-titles, with a live orchestra at the front of the hall playing the soundtrack and providing the emotional cues of the film. The Artist has been picking up accolades and gaining traction in the cinemas toward the various award seasons, and it certainly deserves all the hype and kudos that are coming its way.

Hazanavicius' story deals with the classic tale of rags to riches, and riches to rags, set against the backdrop of the old Hollywood and star system, where recognized stars can command just about the world's attention, and a junior artists can aspire to be at the top of the fame game one day if opportunities, chance and fate all smile their way. It's two stories joint at the hip, one focused on the story of famous mega film star George Valentin (Dujardin), ubiquitous hero of the silent film era, now faced with the possibility of extinction given his studio's growing interest toward the talkies, and his adamant belief that talking pictures is nothing but a passing fad, snug at his position at the top of his career. But this pride and arrogance bear no prisoners when audience attitude and technology change, and George soon fades into oblivion more quickly than his rise and stay to fleeting fame.

The other, parallel story of course deals with actress Peppy Miller (Bejo), who literally bumps into Valentin during the premiere of his latest movie, and progressed from obscurity to a big break given by Valentin himself, who had also offered her a beauty tip that changed her career fortunes for the better, or rather assisted in her stratospheric boost in film fortune. She moves from cameos to support roles and finally marquee large productions, with a flamboyant personality to boot that helped her heaps, becoming the darling of Tinseltown and enjoying an equivalent status and perks associated that George himself had once enjoyed.

Not everyone survived the transition from silent films to talkies, and The Artist doesn't sugar coat it all. With the transition, new stars get born while older ones faded away, especially when their real voices failed to match up to what audiences had imagined during their heydays, and rejection at the big screen was easy given a new lineup of stars all primed to take advantage of the new medium. While watching The Artist it brought back to mind some memories of the good old days where I took on a course module just so to watch Pulp Fiction, but got enthralled by the fascinating silent, black and white classic films such as King Vidor's The Crowd, and The Son of the Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino, amongst other greats.

Technically Hazanavicius' film can't get any better than this, and his meticulous research during pre-production shows in the delicate touches put in the film, from costumes and dressing, to set and art direction, right down to the technical details of framing, camera, and transitional scene techniques used to tell the silent film story right. His story here is one that is filled with strong irony throughout, crafting an incredibly moving and humbling tale of being grateful to those responsible in any way for one's success in any form. For a modern filmmaker, Hazanavicius did everything right in recreating the spirit of silent films, complete with powerful, all-encompassing music by Ludovic Bource to set the tone, emotions and mood right from beginning until the final scene.

Even the acting by the leads were all spot on for the era, who gotten it all right in both their larger gestures and subtleties. Jean Dujardin made his George Valentin believable as the famous movie star, and will have you feel for his character as he bet big on his own abilities and lost to the winds of change, and had to endure further whammies to his life in the form of the Great Depression. He possesses that flair and airs of the star from yesteryear, and is an absolute delight to watch on screen, more than justifying his Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actor. Berenice Bejo too owned her role, sharing fantastic chemistry opposite Dujardin as the woman is forever indebted to her idol for everything good coming her way, and is trying her earnest best to reciprocate as best as she can during times of dire straits. The support cast of James Cromwell, John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller were great, but none stood out other than Uggie the Jack Russell Terrier who single handedly stole the limelight each time it's on screen!

Ask anyone these days to watch a black and white, silent film and you'll probably be scoffed at, but to anyone who has not watched The Artist, it is truly their loss. I only hope that this will spur many of us who have been bedazzled by large scale special effects in almost every modern film, to take a look back into the rich and early days of film to identify the few gems yet to be experienced, and take that bold step to appreciate them once more. The ending couldn't be more perfect as it heralded yet another era of films, that hammers it all home again that The Artist had hit all its intended marks set forth, especially putting that belief in cinema back again. Highly recommended and a definite entry into any year end lists this year. Do NOT miss this masterpiece!

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