Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Artist (2011)

Just before the holidays I heard about a new film that had had its premiere at the Cannes festival in May. Normally I don't comment on movies made after 1935 but in this case I have to make an exception. French director Michel Hazanavicius new movie The Artist is a silent movie with synchronized score and sound effects and a short scene with dialogue at the end, just like if it was made in 1928. Technically it's thus a part-talkie, but it doesn't stop at that. The story takes place in Hollywood 1927 where swashbuckling film star George Valentin is facing the arrival of the talkies. A film about the transition to talkies naturally has its place on this blog.

Unfortunately I had no possibility to attend the Cannes festival premiere and the movie does not become available to the general public until this fall so I haven't actually seen it yet, but I found this nice review by Sukhdev Sandhu in the online edition of the UK paper The Telegraph.

"Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a dashing and rather arrogant actor whose dynamic, swashbuckling roles in films such as A Russian Affair and A German Affair have made him a huge star of the pre-talkie era. But he’s caught off-guard by the arrival of sound: “If that’s the future, you can have it!” His roles dry up, his wife leaves him, and a move into directing doesn’t work out.

All he has left is his Jack Russell terrier and is his memories of the delightfully-named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bojo). She’s the all-smiling, high-stepping would-be actress with whom he’d fallen in love even before her career went into overdrive. They’d never done anything untoward together, but they’ve always looked at each other longingly. Now that he’s seen as “old meat”, now that he’s yesterday’s news, a relic of an abandoned art form, will Peppy still remember him? Does she still carry a flame for him?

The Artist is not a film that thinks it’s superior to the movies it evokes (I was going to use the word 'pastiche', but that seems inappropriate; 'pastiche' sounds cold, a touch heartless - the very opposite of what this is). Hazanavicius has evidently immersed himself in the silent period, seeing in it liberation rather than restriction: he’s in love with its melodramatic intensity, its lack of irony, the importance it places on lighting and photography. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, drawing on deathless classics such as Murnau’s City Girl (1930), makes black and white look wonderfully warm rather than austere. Ludovic Bource’s score is charming and amplified by two exquisitely clever breaks in the film’s otherwise complete eschewal of natural sounds.

Dujardin and Bojo excel together, reining in any desire to compensate for their lack of dialogue by exaggerating the physicality of their roles, and offering up some delightful dance routines too. Hazanavicius himself is wise enough not to stuff the screenplay with lots of dialogue just to placate audiences unused to watching silent; the intertitles are kept to a minimum. By the end, it’s all you can do not to cheer on the seemingly star-crossed lovers and not to sigh about how they don’t make films like this anymore. Except, of course, Hazanavicius just has."

Let's take a look at the trailer. It gives you a good idea of the style. The trailer editor's choice of music is a bit odd though. I don't see why they went for Louis Prima's swing classic Sing Sing Sing written in 1936 instead of a peppy 1928 fox-trot. But I guess you can't have it all. I will definitely watch the movie as soon as I possibly can and I advise all transition geeks to do likewise.

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