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October 14, 2011

The Artist - NYFF 2011



Artist-PosterOscar Bait
Silent Black-and-White Trumps 3D
By Cole Smithey

Here's proof that a black-and-white silent film with a 4:3 aspect ratio can be more entertaining than a 3D anything, "The Artist" conjures a bygone era that reminds us why we love Hollywood. Director Michel Hazanavicius's wonderfully nuanced movie made a splash at Cannes and then became the critical darling of the 2011 New York Film Festival.

Jean Dujardin ("OSS 117 - Lost in Rio") melds Errol Flynn and Fred Astaire in his role as silent film superstar George Valentin. The story finds matinee idol Valentin enjoying a glamorous movie career in Los Angeles near the end of the Roaring Twenties. Flawlessly tailored and groomed, here is a man who can do no wrong. His marriage to a grumpy wife (Penelope Ann Miller) isn't all it's cracked up to be but George has his constant companion, a sometimes heroic Jack Russell terrier, to keep his spirits up. Valentin goes along for the ride when ambitious young starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) creates a welcome bit of impromptu romantic zing during a public photo op. Flashbulbs pop. A spontaneous kiss she plants on George’s cheek makes front-page news. With her infectious smile and adorable dance moves Peppy's silent film career catches fire in the company of the suave and urbane Valentin. Think, “A Star is Born.” In a story familiar to filmgoers the advent of the Talkies doesn't bode well for Valentin, who refuses to participate for a reason that only becomes clear late in the story. Peppy is more adaptable to the technical advances in sound recording. Cast aside by his producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), Valentin dips into his personal savings to produce, direct, and act in a silent movie that necessarily flops on the same day as the release of Peppy's breakout sound role. Our impeccable hero hits the skids.

Michel Hazanavicius meticulously squeezes in an encyclopedic catalog of silent film conventions while staying true to the ideas behind them. The result is a movie that never feels forced or derivative. Aside from a precise use of appropriate music from composer Ludovic Bource, Hazanavicius teases the audience with sound as a delightful narrative ingredient. Will we ever hear Valentin speak? It is, after all, a silent movie.

There’s no getting past Jean Dujardin’s deft acting abilities that extend to graceful dance moves, an artful use of physical mannerisms, and facial expressions that morph between joy and sadness with equally empathetic design. Jean Dujardin’s character is a walking definition of the word “debonair.” The movie is full of sweet little surprises, as during a dream sequence when Valentin hears movie sound for the first time as it emanates from props around him.

Filmed in color, and transferred to black-and-white, “The Artist” is a visually arresting film with more shades of gray than there are colors in a rainbow. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman conveys an iconic association with every perfectly framed composition. Between brilliantly executed performances, dance numbers, and an exquisitely told romantic story about loss and redemption, this flawlessly crafted film shimmers. Visually, it’s astoundingly gorgeous. Equal parts drama, romance, spectacle, and comedy, "The Artist" is an instant classic.

Not Rated. 100  mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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