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"The Artist": The hope and heartbreak of Hollywood dreams

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Reel Mama: "The Artist": The hope and heartbreak of Hollywood dreams

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"The Artist": The hope and heartbreak of Hollywood dreams

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo star in The Artist

Hollywood is notoriously fickle.  One day an artist is the toast of the town, and the next, forgotten like yesterday’s news.  Shirley Temple was a case in point.  When she grew up and was no longer seen as the adorable, dimple-cheeked curly top and box office winner, the studio quickly took down her star and showed her the door.  Or Veronica Lake, the famous sexy star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who quickly faded into obscurity when she was deemed as no longer “hot,” and was discovered years later waitressing in Mexico.  
And then there were those actors who were huge stars in the era of silent film who just never managed to make the transition to talkies.  And that brings us to The Artist.  The introduction of sound revolutionized movies, but the established stars were often unsuited to the new medium, either because they had terrible speaking voices or because, as with George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the main character of The Artist, the public had grown tired of the same old faces after decades.
The most singular thing about The Artist, which was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Picture on Sunday, is that it is itself a silent film.  The film has a lilting score from beginning to end, but, except for a few chosen sound effects and a brief utterance of spoken words, there is no traditional dialogue.  Instead, as in the movies of the glorious silent era, the actors are shown improvising with their lips moving, with the occasional placard inserted to explain what the characters are saying.  And this, rather than being a deterrent, is actually a reason to see the film, not only for its technical accomplishment of replicating the films of a bygone era so beautifully, but for the charm it lends the story.  We fall in love with these characters and are transported to the world of the 1920s and early 1930s in lush black and white.
Talkies ushered in a new generation of starlets and leading men, and this transition is beautifully portrayed in The Artist with the character of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a bit player discovered by Valentin who rises to stardom.  Meanwhile, George Valentin’s career sinks, a metaphor underscored when an explorer he portrays in a self-financed B-grade film meets his untimely end in quick sand. 

This film is delightful, touching, heartbreaking, and at times dark.  It is well worth seeing, if only for the viewer to experience being transported so convincingly to another time and place.  Like Midnight in Paris, the movie immerses the viewer in the world of the 1920s, and in the film’s lighter moments you might even find yourself never wanting to leave.  The film does have a dark side, and the Golden Globes’ designation of it as a comedy is a bit misleading.  The tone is not as consistently light as Midnight in Paris, and in its saddest moments the film is heartbreaking.  On the other hand, Peppy’s pep is present throughout to balance the film and lift Valentin’s spirit and ours. 
Sound films are portrayed, but how they sounded is left to the imagination, a risky but in the end very effective device.  There are some beautiful performances, both by the leading actors and by the supporting ones.  You’ll enjoy appearances by John Goodman (of Roseanne fame) as the studio head, and James Cromwell (best known as the farmer in Babe) as Valentin’s dedicated chauffeur, whose devoted friendship with Valentin is especially touching.  
The Artist is the most highly original film of 2011.  If you love film as an art form, you’ll love this movie.

Reel Mama’s rating: Appropriate for ages 13 and up. It has a sophisticated theme and may take some effort on the part of young teens to get into it, but if they love culture I think they will appreciate its original presentation and nostalgic themes, and I think they’ll find themselves getting drawn into the charm of the story.  Keep in mind that the film does get very dark at times (Valentin makes a disturbing attempt on his own life).
Two classic films to enjoy with the theme of films transitioning to talkies and the repercussions are Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. Check them out!


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