Fame is a fickle thing. The largest star in the world can fall into relative obscurity almost overnight, and an extra can go from chorus girl to center stage almost as quickly. Hollywood films have played on these themes for decades, but none in more than 80 years have done so quite like The Artist.
Set to a Vertigo-esque score by Ludovic Bource The Artist is a marvel in itself. In an age where CGI is king this little independent film takes us back nearly a century by embracing the era of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.
In 2011 it’s not every day you get a black and white silent film. The action alone carries the story, with title cards (rather than subtitles) to fill in any necessary exposition.
Our story begins with the introduction of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the world’s biggest silent movie star, and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young extra just starting out on one of George’s films. As Peppy’s career begins to take off George finds himself obsolete almost overnight as silent films are replaced by talkies.
Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius does a marvelous job in casting actors who not only fit the era but can express themselves with only the barest amount of dialogue. John Goodman is well-chosen as the bombastic studio producer, James Cromwell is terrific as George’s loyal manservant, Penelope Ann Miller steals a scene or two as George’s wife, and Joel Murray has a great scene as a patrolman whose urged to action by George’s most faithful friend – his dog (who steals more than a few scenes of his own).
I’ve also got to credit Laurence Bennett and Gregory S. Hooper for the art direction and set design that not only capture the era but the look and feel of sets used during silent films as well. One of my favorite scenes of the movie is a conversation between George and Peppy in the middle of a multi-level staircase with extras constantly moving about. It’s a terrific set piece made even better because it serves the story so well.
Although the story itself is a simple one, and more than a little reminiscent of any number of versions of A Star Is Born or its litany of imitators (there’s a new version scheduled for 2013 with Clint Eastwood and Beyoncé Knowles attached), the craft which went into making this film is truly impressive.
I don’t know if seeing the film will spark a curiosity in young viewers to older films, but if it does, even for only a handful, the film has done a great service to the industry it spends so much time lovingly recreating here.
The Artist is obviously a labor of love. At times it comes close to being too charming for its own good, but it is easily one of the best films of the year. You might have to search for it (some chains may balk at showing a black and white silent film), but if you can find it playing near you I would recommend you give one of the most unique cinematic experiences of the year (or the last few decades) a try.