The Buzz


Categories: Movies

At a time when film technology is a dazzling explosion of Blu-ray bits in multiple dimensions, filmmakers are bolting to the past. Scorsese did it with Hugo, his love letter to the film fantasies of George Méliès. While the pictures of Méliès were only small part of that film, The Artist is a full-on black and white silent movie from the opening frame to the last.

More than just an homage, The Artist is as close to the experience of a silent film as French director Michel Hazanavicius could manage. It begins with an orchestral flourish, but listen carefully. The music isn't coming from the speakers that surround you, but from the front, almost behind the screen itself. A smart trick, emulating the days when a live orchestra provided the score.

While title cards do provide the occasional burst of dialogue, Hazanavicius leaves much to our imagination. Often it's the combination of the music and the actor's expression that tell us the story. It's an exercise in subtraction. Take away the element of sound and suddenly we're attuned to the actor's every wink and smile.

In another sly wink, the story of The Artist is about the fate of a silent film star. French comedian Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin as a blend of Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. The 1930s audience adores Valentin's dash, his flashy smile and his oh-so-cute canine companion.

 Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist. (Weinstein Co./Associated Press)

But the fickle spotlight doesn't linger long. Shutterbugs snap a doe-eyed gal next to Valentin at a movie premiere. Soon Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) with her Pickford-like curls is all the rage. As her star rises, silent films start to fall out of favour. Movie fans are going mad for the talking pictures. When Valentin's producer (John Goodman) pushes Valentin to give Talkies a try, he refuses. He is an artist! An artist who quickly finds his films playing to half-empty theatres.

As an ode to the silent stars of yesteryear The Artist is an impressive act of mimicry. Jean Dujardin won best actor at Cannes and it's easy to see why. In interviews, he's described the role as a dream job, like being a kid again. It's that playfulness, a touch of Buster Keaton mixed with Gene Kelly, that makes him so convincing. Just watch his moves when he mirrors Peppy Miller warming up back stage. There's a little bit of the Marx Brothers in that impromptu duet. High praise in my books.

As Miller, Bérénice Bejo has her own chance to shine when she sneaks into her idol's dressing room. She imagines Valentin's arm caressing her, miming his embrace by slipping her arm into his freshly pressed tuxedo. A simple movement that speaks volumes.

That and a few other moments (Valentin slowly sinking below quicksand) hint at the potential of drama without dialogue. As convincing as The Artist is, the story is rather slight. A star who loves himself and the woman who loves him almost as much. Anyone will see the trajectory of Valentin's downward fall long before he hits bottom. After the novelty factor fades, what's left is an old-fashioned bit of melodrama.

Your level of enjoyment for The Artist depends on your tolerance for cute dog tricks and fancy footwork. If you're looking for an explanation to all the Oscar buzz, then consider this -- like Valentin, Hollywood loves few things more than its own reflection. No surprise they've fallen hard for the simple pleasures of The Artist.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5

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