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Friday, December 23, 2011

'The Artist' delivers 2011's finest film in exquisite silence

DOG DAYS OF SILENT CINEMA: Jean Dujardin (left) and Uggie in The Artist
American movie audiences probably won’t ever flood the multiplex for a silent, black and white French film. But if Michel Hazanavicius’ ingenious melodrama The Artist ever had a chance to draw box office interest, it’s now. It’s a critical darling at the end of 2011, snapping up Golden Globe nominations and “Best of the Year” awards.

Even more opportune, The Artist arrives in the wake of two movies about similar subjects. Martin Scorsese evoked the pleasures of silent era cinema with Hugo, while The Muppets paid tribute to the same kind of old Hollywood showmanship that The Artist embraces. After a year of 3-D movies, audiences might even appreciate The Artist’s old-school take on cinematic presentation.

Movies, TV shows and viral videos occasionally pay homage to silent movie styles, but The Artist looks and sounds exactly like a film from the late 1920s. As pencil-mustached matinee idol George Valentin, Jean Dujardin basks in the joys of being a beloved movie star while being an athletic dancer and enthusiastic physical comic. You can imagine him sharing the screen with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin.

“I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” Valentin declares in the very first line we read on one of the film’s title cards. His latest hit melodrama finds Valentin’s tuxedoed hero resisting torture from an electric gizmo before saving the day. Ironically, the rest of The Artist hinges on Valentin’s refusal to speak. The film unmistakably borrows the premise and some of the structure of the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, as the introduction of sound turns Hollywood upside down and wrecks careers.

The Artist juxtaposes Valentin’s popular decline with the rise of gorgeous ingénue Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius’ wife Berenice Bejo), who takes the talkies by storm. But where Singin’ in the Rain’s brassy-voiced Lina Lamont flops in the sound movies, Valentin refuses to perform with spoken, recorded dialogue as a matter of principle. Metaphorically, The Artist works as an example of self-defeating creative integrity, as well as profession transformed by new technology.

As the film tracks Valentin’s downward spiral, it unsurprisingly loses some of the effervescence of the first half. Even in its darkest moments, however, Hazanavicius uses clever visual gags to convey its emotional core. During a “Twilight Zone”-style dream scene, Valentin panics over the sudden intrusion of ambient noise in his previously silent universe. Later, nursing his wounded pride in a bar, he finds himself bedeviled by tiny versions of his movie characters. James Cromwell gives a touching, funny supporting performance as Valentin’s chauffeur, who remains loyal despite his employer’s reversal of fortune.

Hazanavicius clearly aims The Artist more at the film buffs who watch Turner Classic Movies, as opposed to the ticket buyers who make hits of Transformers and the Chipmunks. But the movies of the late ’20s and early ’30s, despite primitive sound and the lack of color, were vastly popular with all moviegoers, not just critics and snobs. Likewise, The Artist strives to be entertaining above all, and includes the funniest and most appealing dog actor of the year. Viewers who give it a chance might be surprised at how much they love it.

The Artist. 5 stars. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Stars Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Dec. 23. At area theaters.

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