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Posted on 2/27/12 11:20 PM
I suppose it's called poetic justice when a silent film can leave one speechless, but that is exactly the artistic achievement of Michael Hazanavicius', 'The Artist'. An homage that wears it's influences on it's sleeve, this 21st century silent picture is a tribute to why we fell in love with cinema in the first place.
The film stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a 1920's silent movie star at the precipice of his popularity. He is suave, charismatic, and, most importantly, has a well trimmed mustache. John Goodman plays his producer, James Cromwell his personal chauffer, and Uggie the dog plays his personal metaphor (what's that saying about dogs and tricks?). While working on one of his new films, George unwittingly launches the career of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a bubbly, energetic extra with hopes of being a star herself.
By the late 20's, the film studios begin introducing sound. From the start, George adamantly refuses to adapt to the industry's new filmmaking formula, proclaiming himself to be "an artist" that people come to see, not hear. As his star begins to fade, Peppy's only gets brighter, becoming Hollywood's newest darling starlet of the talkies. After his own failed filmmaking endeavors, made worse by the 1929 stock market crash, George loses his means and meaning in life. As he struggles with his sudden destitution, Peppy resolves to help the man that she adores, admires, loves and owes her entire existence to.
Many people would compare 'The Artist' to films like 'Singin' in The Rain' and 'Sunset Boulevard', and they would have good reason to. But this film is more like 2010's 'The Illusionist', an animated film about a stage magician who is unable to cope with the death of his beloved vaudeville and the birth of rock n roll. On the surface, George appears to be a stubborn, uncompromising man who rejects change based on the principle of rejecting it. But as the film carries on, we soon realize that like the illusionist, this artist is not unwilling, but simply unable to change, which makes his downfall even more tragic. It is not that he hates rock n roll, it's that he can't play the instruments.
But that's not where the film referencing stops. Along with themes from 'Singin' in The Rain' and 'Sunset Boulevard' (and a similar dance sequence from the former), Hazanavicius fills his movie with aspects of classic films that have no doubt inspired him. For instance, there is a breakfast table montage scene that closely resembles that of Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane' and a segment of the score comes directly from Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'. It is important to understand, however, that this is a far cry from mere plagiarism. Hazanavicius utilizes these aspects as a literal metaphor for how this film could not have been made without the inspiration and influences that these classics have engendered. 'The Artist' is not daringly original, and it does not pretend to be. In fact, that's the point. Hazanavicius does not try to pass off these scenes as his own; he assumes that you know them before hand and that you will readily recognize them. He and his film are proudly esoteric, and it never panders or condescends to the audience.
But what about the general audience, you may ask. Well, as a French, black and white, silent film, what do you think? In this rare case, forget the general audience. This film is a love letter, and love letters are not written for everybody to read. Love letters are to be received by people who share the same passion and adoration for the subject matter as the auteur himself, and it's quite evident that Hazanavicius intends his film to be embraced by people who love classical Hollywood as much as he does; general audience be damned. This film is endlessly charming, it's characters endlessly endearing, and it's story endlessly ubiquitous. If you love the pictures, you'll love this one too.