Friends, my gift to you this Christmas weekend is a review of the most enchanting, witty, and brilliant film at the movies this year: THE ARTIST. More magical than HUGO, more universally appealing than THE DESCENDANTS, THE ARTIST speaks volumes without saying a word. It’s a valentine to the movies that will leave you as sweet on them as I have been, all my life.
THE ARTIST is a silent movie in black and white–stay with me here–and is about that very poignant time in the history of cinema when movies made the great leap from “silents” to “talkies,” and sadly– not every big star survived the transition. John Gilbert did not; his inamorata Greta Garbo did. In THE ARTIST a handsome silent matinee idol named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the toast of the town. While signing autographs he meets a pretty young dancer who is dazzled by him. Soon, she finds herself on the verge of movie stardom in the new “talking” pictures. Her marquee name? Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo).
Their names say it all– she’s a star on the rise, her talents propelled by the “new” technology, while Mr. Valentin whose name conjures up the allure of the great silent movie lover “Valentino,” is teetering on the same precipice, but headed in the opposite direction. Dujardin also looks like Gene Kelly in SINGIN” IN THE RAIN; no accident– that 1952 film is about a silent film star whose light is dimming but whose career is invigorated by a spunky ingenue on the verge of a big break (Debbie Reynolds).
As the drama plays itself out, the actors’ deeply expressive faces and bodies along with the occasional title cards tell us everything we need to know –and more. You’ll recognize John Goodman as a studio boss, and James Cromwell as a loyal chauffeur. Without words, the physical is all– and the filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has found profoundly ingenious ways to reveal these characters in all their emotional complexity, build tension and excitement, keep us riveted in the moment, and constantly surprise us.
There are witty set pieces–Peppy fantasizing about Valentin in his dressing room using his jacket hung on a coat rack to imagine the actor’s arms around her. And Valentin dancing with the adorable Peppy– or rather –just her legs, glimpsed below a theater curtain. Separately and together, Dujardin and Bejo have that certain “something” that I couldn’t take my eyes off. And then there’s Valentin’s dog who gives a knockout performance that says it all about what can be communicated without words.
By the end of the movie, I was breathless as the climactic moments approached! Would he survive? Would she save him? I sat there with my mouth open until the last two seconds when something happened that made me gasp yet again! I cannot say more–only that, THE ARTIST is about the old and the new, and what the new owes to the old, and about making art, and life, and magic.
THE ARTIST has won six Golden Globe nominations– more than any other film this year, national and international awards, Best Picture nods from numerous film critics societies across the country including New York and Boston, and is sure to be a big contender in the 2012 OSCAR race. The attention is well-deserved; in a modern cinematic landscape of explosive special effects, I can’t wait to see it again — and luxuriate in the silence.