Hang on because it’s time to dump out the bag of superlative adjectives, and here they are: brilliant, superb, magnificent, stupendous, innovative, imaginative, awesome, sensational, outstanding, and perfect.
Now here are some adverbs that you may insert in front of those adjectives if you wish: absolutely, terrifically, simply, undeniably, hypnotically, unbelievably, incredibly, and irrefragably. Mix and match the adverbs and adjectives and then apply them to “The Artist,” the film that recently and deservedly won Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best actor.
This movie is so unusual that I never did see how any of the other best-picture nominees had a chance against it, and now area film fans have the opportunity to see it at the Marquee Cinemas at the Highlands. As any film aficionado well knows, movies have evolved technically to the point where they are no longer even printed on celluloid. We are living in the age of astounding accomplishments in special effects thanks in large part to computer-generated imaging (CGI), and 3D has advanced so far that now instead of just having images fly off the screen toward the audience, they can come from behind the viewers and go onto the screen.
Before this film season began, if someone had said that the Oscar for best picture would go to a film shot in black and white (almost unheard of these days), most people would have scoffed at the idea. But then add to the statement that the winning movie also would be a silent one, and the person making such a statement surely would be considered either demented or delusional or both. But “The Artist” captured top honors at the 84th Academy Awards. And it was shot in black and white. And it is a silent film. Interestingly enough, the Oscar for the very first best-picture honor in 1928 went to the silent movie titled “Wings,” and the fact that a black and white silent film won the same honor 84 years later is a tribute to the picture’s obvious brilliance.
Fittingly, “The Artist” begins with an audience watching a silent movie. The year is 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the king of silent film stars for Kinograph Studios. After seeing a few scenes of his new movie, we join him behind the screen as the film wraps up and the closing credits roll by. Then it’s time for him to bask in the appreciation of his adoring fans by making multiple curtain calls.
Later outside the theater autograph seekers and well wishers mob George, and among these is a beautiful young woman named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who accidentally bumps into George when she is bending down to retrieve her dropped purse. After the two exchange a few silent words, she impulsively kisses him on the cheek, and the picture of this event appears the next morning in Variety under the huge headline reading “WHO’S THAT GIRL?” This incident enrages George’s wife and costar, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), but George simply makes light of the whole thing. However George and Peppy soon cross paths again when she is cast as an extra in one of his upcoming films. She is an aspiring dancer, and one of the scenes calls for her to dance briefly with George, and it’s quite obvious that there are sparks between the two of them.
As the film progresses, however, George’s bright star begins to fade with the advent of talking films because he stubbornly refuses to change with the times. Peppy, on the other hand, embarks on her ascendance to stardom. Her gorgeous smile, her effervescent personality, and her boundless energy soon make her the darling of film fans who flock to see her movies complete with sound. Will George make a comeback in silent movies? Will Peppy’s star continue to rise? Will the two of them ever get together? Will George ever overcome his resistance to “talkies”? For the answer to these questions and more, you will have to see “The Artist.” This movie boasts so many outstanding attributes that it’s difficult to decide where to begin delineating them. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it, however, is the way it draws you into the lives of its characters without their uttering a word. A few captions appear on the screen from time to time, but for the most part we know what the characters are thinking and feeling merely by their facial expressions. And, of course, this is a testament to acting that surpasses brilliance.
Dujardin and Bejo take onscreen chemistry to a new level. From the first time they meet until the final scene, the attraction between the two of the crackles (silently of course) with electricity. Every look they give each other speaks volumes, and this ability to communicate without speaking also applies to costars Miller, as George’s dissatisfied wife, John Goodman as the kingpin at Kinograph Studios, and James Cromwell as George’s devoted chauffeur. And we mustn’t forget Uggie, the scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier as George’s constant companion.
In the film’s production notes, director Michel Hazanavicius explained what inspired him to direct the film.
“As a director, a silent film makes you face your responsibilities. Everything is in the image, in the organization of the signals you’re sending to the audience. And it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensorial; the fact that there is no text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story that only works on the feelings you have created. I thought it would be a magnificent challenge and that if I could manage it, it would be very rewarding.”
Also in the production notes, Dujardin recalled how he reacted to seeing the screenplay for the first time. “He (Hazanavicius) handed it to me, slightly feverish: ‘Read this, but don’t laugh. Do you think it’s possible? What do you think of it? Would you be ready to do it?’ I read it in one sitting. My first thought was that it was really gutsy to have pursued his fantasy all the way. As was the case with each of Michel’s scripts, I thought it was really well written, with everything perfectly in place. Up until then, we’d made comedies where we had a lot of fun with characters and situations. ‘The Artist’ had comedy and action, yet it was full of emotion. I was touched by all it said about cinema and its history and actors. I loved the premise, the meeting between George Valentin and Peppy Miller, the story of crossed destinies.”
The actor also spoke about his apprehension about portraying George. “It was exciting to start with this character who is always showing off, in front of the camera, with his fans, with his wife, but then slides gradually into darker waters. At first I was nervous about those more serious scenes, for which I had no lines to hold on to. But I discovered that silent film was almost an advantage. You just have to think of the feeling for it to show. No lines come to pollute it. It doesn’t take much – a gaze, an eyelash flutter – for the emotion to be vivid.”
In addition great acting in the film, the costume, the sets, and musical score are equally magnificent. The movie captures the aura of the 1920s perfectly, and if it does nothing else, it makes us realize that ear-splitting pyrotechnics, screaming car chases, and galloping gallons of gore are not essential to making a classic motion picture.
“The Artist” (It gets a 10, and if the scale went to 15, it would get that.) is a film unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Don’t miss it because it epitomizes the word “art.”