Oct 17, 2011

NYFF 2011: The Artist

I had no faith in this movie. I was afraid it was going to be a gimmicky, twee affair along the likes of Amelie (a movie I loathe), but The Artist, by writer director Michel Hazanavicius, is a disarming, inventive and charming love letter to the art of filmmaking, and it is a wonderful treat. It is technically breathtaking, flawlessly executed and it restores our wonder in the magic of cinema by showing us how it's been done since the beginning.  
The Artist has the cheekiness of being a new silent film in black and white. What's more, it makes it a new and thrilling experience. In this age of shrinking screens, 3D, digital cameras and special effects (which it itself uses, subtly and brilliantly), it reminds us that cinema, the most modern form of art, has always been about technological advancement. From the very beginning people were inventing ways with which to better tell stories, whether with sound or with color, with the invention of the dolly or the cut, or better special effects. The art form has never stopped moving forward and hopefully, as long as it has affecting stories to tell, it never will. The first movies were shown on zoetropes or movieolas, little personal machines that you cranked up to see a spool of film achieve movement. Now that we can watch films in our phones, and that commercial movie screens have shrunk while TV screens have mushroomed, we are back to square one. This is not necessarily a good thing, but The Artist both asks us to restore our sense of wonder in the movies and admire the craft that goes into making a film, as well as to let go of our fears and embrace whatever is coming, for as long as a story is told that reaches our hearts, the art form will not die.  
The Artist is also an elegy to an age where cinema was simple but grandiose. The stories were basic, the technology primitive, but oh, those sumptuous movie palaces with giant screens and live music! Now the movies have become enormous, expensive spectacles, most of them still telling some very basic stories, while the communal experience of moviegoing keeps shrinking; a tragedy, if you ask me. You could watch The Artist in Netflix, or even in your iPhone, but as every other movie except the bad ones, you need a big screen to fully feel the impact of the expressiveness of the human face, the gorgeousness of its images and the thrill of its lovely tale.
The story is simple: George Valentin (the excellent Jean Dujardin, who won the best actor award at Cannes) is a silent film idol, a dashing cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. He is a huge movie star, with a ravenous ego. He swashbuckles and rescues damsels in distress for a living. He lives in a mansion with his unhappy wife (Penelope Ann Miller, excellent) and his loyal dog (Uggy, very excellent), who also appears in his movies, and whom he dotes on much more than on his wife. The opening scene is a film within a film. We are watching people watching a silent movie. It is the premiere, and the actors and producers wait behind the screen to hear the audience's reaction, which we can't hear, but which we see in the triumphant expression of their faces as we gather that the audience loved it. Then it cuts to a silent shot of the audience applauding wildly. The music score by Ludovic Bource (deserves an Oscar nomination) is a pitch-perfect homage to movie music and it complements, enhances and underscores the movie gorgeously, focusing the audience's attention on what a great music score can do in a movie; basically, drive you to tears, fear, excitement and joy. The exquisite black and white cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman is also worthy of top awards.
Valentin basks in the adoration of the public, and on the street, while posing for photographers, he meets a pretty girl by accident (Berenice Bejo, wonderful). From there, it's boy meets girl, boy loses girl and, of course, boy meets girl again. She is a wannabe starlet who looks for work as an extra in a big Hollywood studio, and the movie chronicles her rising fortunes as Valentin's star ebbs (in a beautiful sequence where we see how her name appears in the credits of movies, from the very bottom and with spelling mistakes, to top billing as "Peppy Miller"). Valentin is getting on in years, and his producer (John Goodman, excellent), shows him the future: a sound test for the "talkies", which of course, we can't hear. Valentine laughs it off, as many did in its day, as a fad and a failure. Soon, he's out of work, because then, as today, Hollywood is always hungry for the new. The hero's tribulations and his love story are deeply affecting, aided by Dujardin's charming and wonderfully calibrated performance.
There are many ingenious moments in this fun, delightful film, which is so well done, and it has so many layers of creative ingenuity to it, in the use of the movie grammar -- sound, music, shots -- that I bet it could serve as a master class in early filmmaking techniques. It lovingly recreates every old movie cliche, both technical and dramatic; from emotional mugging in close ups, to a thrilling car sequence, to an Astaire and Rogers number, to a dog to the rescue scene. It also reminds us that film language tells a story mainly visually, and that it can make us experience all kinds of feelings with few words, if any. 
The Artist, a great commercial work of art (by Hazanavicius, a guy who is mainly known for his French James Bond spoofs), works at several levels. Film fanatics like me are going to have a ball with all the fun meta movie stuff, which is prodigious, but the average moviegoer will not be immune to its charms, for it is funny, poignant and delightful. Its entire premise is to show that a silent film in black and white can still win people's hearts. And that the essence of movies, this magnificent, collaborative art form, is here to stay. It is sheer joy.

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