Now and then you go to a movie and you find yourself cheering for the hero or heroine. You fall in love with a character (a dog for instance), and you leave the theater wondering why it all happened so fast because you want to be back in the darkness–living with those characters up on the screen one more time. . . or maybe two more times or maybe even forever. Woody Allen was on to some of that when he made The Purple Rose of Cairo–that idea of being transfixed by the cinema, of somehow making the leap through the two realities from one side of the celluloid to the other. Blending the two. This is The Artist.
Reminiscent of A Star Is Born, The Artist takes place in Hollywood at the very beginning of the talkies, when a dashing silent film star is teetering on the edge of nothingness because he’s not talkie material. A French production, starring Jean Dujardin as George Valentin (name undoubtedly not a coincidence), the film also stars the lovely Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller, the young aspiring starlet who dazzles her way into the hearts and minds of talkie audiences.
The film is mostly silent, but for a wonderful score by Mark Isham. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is adorably funny in parts, romantic as all get out, and simply enchanting throughout. The intelligence of Dujardin’s facial expressions–whether projecting anguish or flirtation or a myriad of other human emotions, and the fluidity of Bejo’s movements and expressive eyes weave together in a dance of movie romance as palpable and exciting as any more modern-style representation (with dialogue) could possibly be.
Dialogue is not missed; in fact, it would be an intrusion. The Artist can be thought of as a love song in homage to silent film. But it is more than that. Nostalgia for a time when faces, gestures, and music told the story. You filled in the blanks and told yourself the rest. Nostalgia for movie innocence, perhaps. No digital 3D or rash of special effects. Just a delightful story about the end of an era and the beginning of another one, the spiraling down of a career while another one is ascending, where love and devotion meet conflict straight out–the stuff that movies are made of when they’re at their very best.
And there are familiar elements of those classic heroes and heroines from the silent era (as well as the talkies) –including the role of Hollywood studio boss Al Zimmer, whose raison d’etre is (predictably) knowing what sells movie tickets. John Goodman plays the role to the hilt. He personifies the bossy studio head who idolizes whoever/whatever can make him the most money and who won’t think twice about ending a career if the wind blows in another direction. Peppy Miller, who could easily be a young Ann Miller bursting with energy, and of course Jack, the trusty terrier, reminiscent of Asta of Thin Man fame.
Jack, George Valentin’s constant companion and co-star, is played to perfection by three separate, but all delightful and talented Jack Russell terriers. Jack stays by his master’s side through thick and thin and is a lesson in devotion, inventiveness, and just plain adorableness. If those dogs don’t win your heart, nothing ever will.
Cameo performance by Malcom McDowell, who plays The Butler, and a well-acted supporting role by James Cromwell (of Babe fame, along several other notable performances)
As a movie, The Artist is in a category all by itself. Not only because it’s silent, but because it contains and projects something that is perhaps the reason for our collective nostalgia: a longing for a time–real or imagined–when life was simpler and easier to understand. When what made us tick–happy or sad–was more black and white.
When she’s not writing, you’ll find Francine swimming, hiking, practicing yoga, and an assortment of other activities to keep her out of trouble–most recently creating an app, vinOrganica California, a guide to wineries in California that use organic grapes. It’s available on the iTunes store, and you can learn more about it at www.vinorganica.com.