Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Artist (2011) – Review

Review: The Artist is a funny and heartfelt romance. The film is about silent movie star George Valentin, whose life is left in ruins when cinema switches to sound leaving him behind. But, there is potential light at the end of the tunnel for George in the form of rising star Peppy Miller, whom he falls for upon their first meeting. Much like with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius pays tribute to the history of cinema, specifically the silent era. However, Hazanavicius takes it a step further, making an almost completely silent film, and very much in the style of that era. The silent era of cinema saw some of the most creative and artistic films (and filmmakers like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sergei M. Eisenstein, King Vidor, Charles Chaplin and Buster Keeton among others) in cinema history – sound setting the industry creatively back decades some historians say. And much like with Hugo, a lot of the charm of this film comes from its homage to the past. Silent films relied completely on visual storytelling, and for the most part Hazanavicius is up to the task – especially with a fantastic beginning and ending to the film. However, the middle is where the issue lies with this film. Hazanavicius is able to convey the narrative and character journeys throughout, but the pacing falls apart in the middle of the film and it drags horribly. It is a shame really, as the end is so good, but most of the momentum is lost by the time it comes around. I think that like with Hugo, the novelty and nostalgic aspects of the film greatly outweighs the shortcomings in the minds of many familiar with film history, but taking the film at face value the pacing and overly drawn-out narrative leave the film not working quite as well as it could have. Not to say it is a bad film, as this is far from the case; it is a very good film, just not a great one (which it could have been). There is also a postmodern aspect to the film that is interesting. George loses his career due to his inability to adapt to sound – even having a nightmare in which objects make sounds when interacted with climaxing with full on ambient noise and women laughing at him. Throughout, he is unable to speak, or get his true feeling across to Peppy – be it due to pride or other emotions/circumstances. Finally, when he is able to speak, confronting his fears, the whole film is illuminated with sound. It is quite powerful. The homage and postmodern characteristics of The Artist propel it above the romance narrative it otherwise is, but Hazanavicius is not quite a good enough filmmaker to make a great silent film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Michel Hazanvicius has made three prior feature films (all comedies), but none to the acclaim that The Artist is receiving – which will make his next project not only highly anticipated but also something that will likely see distribution in America. I am interested to see how he follows this film up. Ludovic Bource’s score is good. It accompanies and reinforces the characters and narrative well, but it is greatly overshadowed by the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo at times (Herrmann’s score occupies the best moments of this film – here is a sample). Shooting in the customary 1.33:1 ratio, Guillaume Schiffman’s cinematography is very good (but not as good as other recent black and white films of note – The Man Who Wasn’t There, The White Ribbon and Wings of Desire to name a few), nor does it quite have the fluidity of the silent film masters. Production designer Laurence Bennett does maybe the best aesthetic work of the film, capturing the essence of the era. Performance wise, the film has a lot of small roles (almost like celebrity cameos) – the best among them is John Goodman as the studio boss. The film’s two leads are both brilliant however (both just missing out on making my yearend awards). Berenice Bejo has a ton of energy and charisma. She really lights up the screen. Jean Dujardin plays his part so big, but also has enough true emotion that the viewer completely connects with him – having a very cute dog as a sidekick also does not hurt.

Summary & score: The way The Artist brings the silent era back to life is magical and not something to be missed, if only the pacing and narrative could have been a bit tighter. 7/10

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