Thursday, December 01, 2011

Movie: The Artist

I won tickets to the preview screening of the movie "The Artist" before its general theatre release. This movie previously played at Cannes and TIFF and won rave accolades at both festivals. It had made our short list of TIFF movies for this year but did not make our final cut.  We regretted this decision after hearing the reviews, so we were very excited for this chance to see it.

The Artist is a modern day take on the black and white silent film of the early 1920s.  George Valentin is the reigning silent film heart throb while Peppy Miller is an up and coming young actress who gets her start with a small part in one of his films.  As Peppy's popularity rises, George's fades when he can't make the transition to talking movies because of his heavily accented voice (which we don't hear until the last seconds of the film).  Although no dialogue is spoken between them, the love story between the star-crossed pair, whose careers are on opposite trajectories, is vividly portrayed and deeply felt.

Any similarities to Singing in the Rain are clearly intentional. French actor Jean Dujardin ,who plays George, could be Gene Kelly's twin especially when he flashes that familiar smile that lights up a room.  George's brassy blond costar,  who also has trouble transitioning to talkies, is clearly modeled after Jean Hagen's character Lisa Lament while Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo's aptly named Peppy is every bit as cute and perky as Debbie Reynolds.

Much of the comic relief of the movie is provided one of the most talented dogs ever captured on film.  The jack russell terrier, who looks like Eddie from Fraiser, stole every scene that he was in.  This little dog exuded personality and stuck faithfully by his master through all his trials and tribulations.  Carrying on the Singing in the Rain analogy, I guess he represents the Donald O'Connor sidekick character.

The opening scenes felt like a "meta movie" as we sat watching a silent movie featuring an audience watching a silent movie starring George Valentin.  A scene where Peppy expresses her affection and gratitude for George by acting out an embrace with his jacket plays out as an extremely touching pantomime.

What starts off as a light hearted film becomes more of a melodrama as George falls into poverty and despair while Peppy secretly, then actively tries to save him.  A scene from his last movie (a flop) acts as a metaphor for his career as he sinks slowly into quicksand and then disappears.

The movie is full of clever shots and creative camera angles with what seems like homages to Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard. A scene where George trashes a room filled with reels of his old movies but saves the reel of his first film made with Peppy is reminiscent of the one where Charlie Kane trashes Susan's room but saves the snowglobe.

Although silent for most of the movie and accompanied by a soaring score in the tradition of such movies, there was a brief and innovative use of sound in the middle of the film.  In a dream sequence where George remains mute and unable to speak, he suddenly hears sounds and voices all around him.  This nightmare effectively communicates his fears of the new world of talking pictures and its affect on his livelihood.  After such a long period without dialogue, suddenly hearing speech is intentionally jarring.

Despite the leads being French and Argentinian, there are some well known American movie stars in supporting roles.  Penelope Ann Miller plays George's neglected wife, John Goodman is the head of the movie studio and James Cromwell is George's loyal chauffeur.

While The Artist is a loving tribute to the era of silent pictures, it has a modern sensibility to it, as the acting, gestures and facial expressions are more subtle and less exaggerated.  This is a very special movie to be appreciated both for its artistic merit and excellent story telling.  I was fully invested in these characters and their story and was riveted to the end.  I hope this movie gets noticed for the Oscars.

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