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THE ARTIST: Black and white and pure gold
By Joseph W. Smith III
February 26, 2012
**** (out of four)
Currently poised to win the Oscar for Best Picture, “The Artist” has received rave reviews from nearly every critic -- and I will tell you why.
It’s because we love movies.
Old-fashioned movies. Black-and-white movies. Silent movies. Foreign movies.
“The Artist” is all of these -- and more; in fact, it’s a masterpiece.
Set in the years 1927 to 1932, the film concerns an aging silent star named George Valentin. As the sound era begins, Valentin befriends up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller; convinced that sound is a fluke, and unwilling to speak aloud onscreen, the charming Valentin watches Miller’s talkie career take off while his own collapses.
Ironically, the script sides with George -- insisting that if a film is well made, it doesn’t need dialog or sound; and “The Artist” then proves this assertion with a silent film of breath-taking cleverness, beauty and craftsmanship.
The luscious score by Ludovic Bource recalls what Variety once said about screen composer Bernard Herrmann -- that his work “would make blank film compelling.”
Except that Bource isn’t working against blank film.
On the contrary, “The Artist’s” black-and-white photography is heart-breakingly gorgeous -- reminding us that silver, gray, cream and charcoal really are colors in themselves; it’s not hard to believe Time magazine’s revelation that the film was actually shot in color and then “monochromed” in a lab.
Jean Dujardin is magnficient as Valentin; his matinee-idol good looks and Gene Kelly smile make it a cinch to see him as a silent superstar -- and the man can dance like Kelly too!
Dujardin is easily matched by relative newcomer Berenice Bejo as Miller. Both are adept at the larger-than-life acting that characterized the silents and early sound films.
The one-two punch of these performances and Bource’s music sometimes makes dialog seem not merely unnecessary but downright detrimental.
Take the scene when Miller tells reporters that silent-film acting was too extravagant and overdone: In this very sequence, both she and Dujardin are demonstrating -- without the aid of dialog -- that this style of acting still works beautifully 80 years later.
This sort of self-referential cleverness is the film’s triumph -- like the early scene from one of Valentin’s movies, when he’s being tortured but refuses to “speak”; when his wife complains that they never talk; and when he laments that his ever-present dog (an onscreen companion as well) can’t do so either.
The storyline is rife with melodrama, grand gestures and blissful moments that are all strictly visual; I especially enjoyed the brief dance when George and Peppy first meet, and the touching scene in which she tries on his coat.
Best of all is the mild surprise ending, which is so understated that I’ll warn you in advance: when the dance number ends, pay attention to the line, “With pleasure”; it’ll make you want to watch the movie again.
I’m a hopeless fan of old movies, and “The Artist” indjuced in me a burst of nostalgia that was all but irresistible -- something that probably happened to most film-lovers who raved about this movie.
If you relish old-fashioned cinema, “The Artist” is for you; if not, this is a good place to start.
The film is rated PG-13 for one brief gesture and very little else.