'The Artist': A Silent Beauty
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
What are the odds of a silent movie, shot in black-and-white and the boxy old 1:33 screen ratio, wowing auds at this year's Cannes Film Festival? Or that the star of such a throwback -- Jean Dujardin, star of the "OSS 117" spy spoofs -- should show up in Entertainment Weekly as a potential Oscar nominee? Place your bets with confidence, my friends. Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" is a winner, easily one of the best films of 2011.
Neither parody nor nostalgic wallow, this sure-footed excursion into cinema's past is all artifice, but artifice so artful it feels and looks more real than many a movie unreeling in widescreen color. Unfettered by irony, inspiring the kind of spontaneous emotional response we yearn for at the multiplex, "The Artist" immerses us in joyful illusion, a world of movies within movies.
We first meet George Valentin (Dujardin), a dashing amalgam of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, on screen, starring in a caper about a masked hero who, with the help of his faithful Jack Russell terrier, easily overcomes all obstacles and enemies, saving a blond beauty from a fate worse than death. The audience, a sea of rapt faces in a packed house (downtown L.A.'s Orpheum Theater), laughs and screams as one, a community bonded in the magical light of the silver screen.
Behind that screen, Valentin himself dances with delight at his movie's success. He's backed by another beaming audience, studio head Al Zimmer (a monumental and endearing John Goodman) and his minions. Then Valentin goes out onstage to drink in the crowd's adulation, hilariously refusing to yield the spotlight to anyone but his adorable dog (Uggy, from the same scene-stealing species as Asta and Lassie). This is what he lives on, and for.
That's the anatomy of Hazanavicius' meta-movie: Audience, screen, artist, moneyman all exist on one plane, a symbiotically connected community sustained by movie make-believe. There are no civilians; everybody's a player and the whole world's a movie set (in reality, Hollywood's old Warner Bros. studio). "The Artist" contains afterimages of "A Star Is Born," "Citizen Kane," even "Singin' in the Rain," as though all these stories existed at once, in some long-running theater of the imagination.
Vamping in tux and top hat for admirers and newshounds, swashbuckler moustache and cocked eyebrow in perfect play, Valentin exudes innocent delight, and so much generosity of spirit he allows a pretty fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, terrific) into his magic, flashbulb-lit circle. The camera loves her. Instantly -- in movie time -- her infectious grin and flapper zest win her a bit part in Valentin's latest moving picture.
The great man's already got a wife (Penelope Ann Miller), eternally stuck at the other end of the breakfast table à la Mrs. Kane, but Peppy, a good-looking livewire crackling with energy, is clearly his soul mate, his perfect co-star. They fall for each other during successive takes, not dates: each time, Valentin puts on his secret agent "face," then glides through a clutch of dancers to use her as cover while he scouts for his quarry over her shoulder. Trouble is, once he takes Peppy into his arms, they only have eyes for each other. A different movie gets born before our eyes, emotion arising from motion, tenderness from a tracking camera.
Later, in one of the loveliest moments in this or any other film, Peppy puts one arm through the sleeve of Valentin's hangered tuxedo, drawing the jacket around her body to make love to herself. Silence enhances the scene's extraordinary impact, as the actress incarnates lover and beloved at once.
"The Artist" makes us register how powerfully performers once acted through movement, how deeply their grace -- whether slapstick or balletic -- moved us. As Valentin, a man made out of quicksilver, Dujardin shines. His elegant physicality speaks volumes, and his mercurial emotions animate his features, eliding as seamlessly as cinematic "wipes." In a terrifying nightmare foreshadowing his death by "talkies," sound breaks out everywhere. Valentin alone cannot speak. Evoking the effects of gravity on his fallen angel, Dujardin moves heavily, his body diminished and impotent, all his fire extinguished. Only silver nitrate can incandesce Dujardin's movieman.
While Valentin turns leaden, Peppy's access to screenlight transforms the pretty extra into luminous star. A beacon in hard times, the wide smile that curves Bejo's generous mouth is more exhilarating than any screen-spanning special effect. And the aesthetic logic of this silent screen-dream will not be denied: The two -- peppy ingénue and suave Scaramouche -- must reunite, so that their shared energy, expressed in joyous hoofing, can spark "The Artist" back to life.
But long before that consummation, Valentin stares hopelessly into a pawnshop window, his head reflected in the glass so that it looks like he's wearing the tuxedo on display -- perhaps the very one he long ago sold. The liebestod strains, lifted from "Vertigo," underscore the abyss between empty-suit reality and lens-enhanced wholeness. Soon Valentin will be pulling a Kane, burning all the films that guarantee him some small immortality.
Painted in shades of black and white, "The Artist" is all about shattered identity and sustaining illusion, the stuff that movies are made of. It strikes a nerve, and any film lover who hasn't been emotionally novocained by heavy metal movie-machines will savor the exquisite pain and pleasure of being touched.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.