February 06, 2012

The Artist (France 2011)

You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

from Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard"

Next time you're watching a current movie on TV, turn off the volume and reduce saturation to the minimum. You are then watching a silent movie - but with the sole effect that the small, insignificant film will be even smaller and more insignificant. No magic anywhere. Without the dialogues, which in modern movies are mostly there to advance the storyline, there is hardly anything left that will keep you watching. In the early age of film the story was told primarily through images which was much more appropriate for the medium film. Back then, the actors were responsible for the emotions. Their overacting rich on gestures and facial expressions may have been far from reality but the audience got a great show in return. In those times, film was much closer to an original art form - and the actors contributed their part to it.

Such an "artist" is George Valentin, the main character in the silent film homage "The Artist". He is a big movie star who is suddenly - thanks to the introduction of the talkies - not in demand anymore which puts him into a severe crisis. Of all people, the young actress Peppy Miller, who he helped to fame, is the new talk of town and on the way to stardom. But what the washed up stars doesn't know that she is also one of his biggest remaining fans...

With his charming silent film, which adopts the style of the silents, French director Michel Hazanavicius celebrates Hollywood's golden era. This - and the high average age of the Academy voters  - may be the primary reason the film is a strong contender at this year's Oscars. The film does not shy away from the dark sides of the dream factory but the director portrays them in a much less cynical fashion than Billy Wilder did 1950 in "Sunset Boulevard". He also manages to touch the audience with a simple, but lovely told story. The flair of the time is captured with some nice details as well. One has the feeling of actually watching an "old" movie. Even if the director does not strictly adhere to the aesthetics of the silent films which has been the subject of some criticism. But what is much more important anyway is that the film is emotionally authentic. To a large part this is due to the two wonderful main actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo who appear to come right out of Hollywood's heyday themselves.

"The Artist" is - if not much more - a great piece of entertainment that stylishly captures the magic and fascination cinema once exuded. And in a time of the downfall of cinema, "The Artist" is also a film about the downfall of cinema. Many film lovers will leave this exhilarating film with a bittersweet, nostalgic feeling. And with the assurance that Norma Desmond was right...


Silence is golden: Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo

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