Sunday, January 1, 2012

Day 256 - The Artist

The Artist (2011) directed by Michel Hazanavicious

There is a certain manner to silent acting that is so unlike "talkies", the way people smile, how they use body language, basically how to command a screen without making a sound.  It is curious then why so few silent film stars were able to successfully transition into talkies. The Artist is a wonderfully ironic movie in that it is a silent film about the fall of a silent film star.

George Valentin has all the perfect qualities of a silent star, the magnetic smile, the facial expressions and commanding presence. He is also a bit of an egomaniac and when shown a test screening of a sound picture, he scoffs at it. The head of the studio tells him that this is the future. George responds to him, "If this is the future, you can have it," in a title card, of course. During this time we are introduced to a young and ambitious actress, Peppy Miller, who gets her first break in one of George's pictures. There is an undeniable chemistry between the two, but he is married and they are both on their separate ways anyways. He is a face of the silent past and she will be the voice of the talking future.

George struggles mightily in the upcoming sound revolution while Peppy becomes as big of a star as George ever was. They are headed in different directions but are never far apart. George falls into a drunken depression as his life falls apart and Peppy can only watch from a distance in her car and drive off. This is perhaps my one complaint of the film. I felt like a guest at George's pity party a tad bit too long, as if the entire film was made just for us to feel sorry for him. Okay, we get it, you've fallen on hard times. Get over it already and make your comeback or get the girl or whatever it is and just do it!

But still, there is an undeniable appeal to The Artist. It is in its timeless story and charm. Sometimes I forgot I was watching a silent film, which at times can feel like a gimmick, and was just engrossed in the story. But it isn't completely silent of course. There is a wonderful musical score that flows with the scenes.

In a very clever scene, we hear the first in-movie sound in George's dream. He puts down his glass and it makes a sound on the table. Curious, he tries it again, only this time it is louder. He knocks over something and we can hear that as well. The phone rings. Chatter can be heard. He steps outside and a procession of women are laughing. All the while George tries to say something but nothing comes out; he is still silent.

Why does George stay silent? He is a huge star but his pride will not let him make a talkie, or is it his fear? The common myth (or fact?) of the silent film stars was that they all faded away because they couldn't make the transition. Whatever the reason or reasons was, it wasn't because of some x-factor that didn't translate well from silent films into sound. Actors like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (who both had success in talkies) are proof that great acting isn't defined or limited by genre but instead transcends it.

Grade: B+

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