Sounds of Silence
While Hollywood faded at the box office in 2011, three noteworthy movies took a long look back at cinema’s past—not in anger, but with love and nostalgia. The Artist, My Week with Marilyn and Hugo are all Oscar-nominated flashbacks that returned us to simpler times, well before the simpler minds of modern, Die-Hardened Hollywood.
If Martin Scorsese’s 3-D Hugo is deep on cinephile sentiment and short on depth, the Franco-American Artist paints a loving, lustrous portrait of Tinseltown in the late silent era. Few, if any, recent films have spoken with such eloquence on just how much the movies have lost by abandoning their roots in nuanced acting and pantomime.
Iris in on an ornate picture palace in 1927 Los Angeles. Onstage, suave matinee-idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) hams it up at the premiere of his latest flick before a packed house of smartly dressed Jazz Agers. In this cinematic love letter written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, Valentin’s character is sealed with a kiss blown back to such icons as Douglas Fairbanks as well as sound star Gene Kelly.
Despite Dujardin’s charming, nimble presence (he won Cannes’ Best Actor award), the real star of the show is the film itself, a jaunty black-and-white trip down the memory lane of the silver screen. Shot in the boxy 1.33 celluloid format of old, The Artist is anything but square; it looks so positively right that its negative might have been uncanned from the vaults of MGM, Paramount or Fox (pre-Murdoch) during the bygone studio years.
Whatever the vintage, Hazanavicius pays homage to a galaxy of Hollywood classics, from A Star Is Born and Sunset Boulevard to Singin’ in the Rain and Citizen Kane. The unkindest critical cut is that Hazanavicius excessively mimics his favorites, leaving us with a narrow, if crystal-clear, focus.
Starting with A Star Is Born (pick a version), Hazanavicius and his cinematographer Guilliaume Schiffman shine a spotlight on Valentin as he’s eclipsed by Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a bob-haired flapper who ascends to stardom during the revolutionary switch from silent to sound. Stuck in a freeze-frame, Valentin does a Charlie Chaplin and refuses to talk on screen, insisting that the silents are still golden. Our hero’s downfall is what might have happened to Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood had he stayed indoors and sulked instead of singin’ (and dancin’) in the rain.
Despite the 90 or so minutes of silent pictures, they’re not at all hard to hear, thanks to a colorful and atmospheric score by Ludovic Bource that sometimes echoes too loudly with Bernard Herrmann melodies. As Gloria Swanson famously said in Sunset Boulevard, the silent stars didn’t need words, they “had faces”; Dujardin and company say what they need through a delicate dance of gesture and facial expression—as well as a sprinkling of intertitles. A Jack Russell terrier channeling Rin Tin Tin, Valentin’s faithful dog (Uggie) is one of the movie’s best friends.
Audiences may be amazed and delighted by Hazanavicius’ adoring attention to period detail, from Murphy beds and “Pickfair”-era Hollywood mansions to such quaint screen punctuations as wipes, irises and slow fades. While The Artist borrows too much to be an artistic masterpiece in its own right, it deserves a joyful exclamation—aloud—for its heart.
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