The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5
“SILENT IS GOLDEN”
It’s an odd coincidence that two films that will probably both be up for Best Picture in this year’s Oscar race take as their subject the marvels of the silent film era and have a close tie with France. Also, coincidentally both received from me a 4.5 out of 5, which in my rating system means they are both really great, near-perfect films.
The first was Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the young adult book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which builds a fantasy story around the later life of silent era auteur Georges Méliès. It is a slightly flawed, but ultimately lovable family film from one of the medium’s major artisans. I’d even call it Scorsese’s best in quite some time (I’m one of those of the opinion that The Departed was grossly overrated and didn’t warrant the multiple Academy Awards it received).
The other is The Artist, certainly the stranger of the two, and certainly the more likely to win the gold statuette. It’s a mesmerizing piece of cinema magic about a silent film idol, George Valentin (played brilliantly by Jean Dujardin), who, at the advent of the talkies, does not adapt to the changes being made in the transition from silent to sound, and thus is quickly forgotten. Orbiting around this star in the waning days of the silent era is a young starlet, Peppy Miller (played just as brilliantly by Bérénice Bejo), who Valentin helps in the beginning of her film career, and who later becomes one of the first superstars of the sound era. The dynamic between these two, and their inverse trajectories, forms the backbone of the film.
Of course, as you’ve probably heard, if you’ve heard anything about The Artist: not only is it a film about the silent era, it actually is silent itself. Now don’t let that deter you from seeing it! Silent black-and-white film doesn’t automatically mean boring–unfortunately my generation seems to equate the two automatically. The MTV video game mentality of my contemporaries, they seem to think, isn’t suited for harkening back to the silent era. Even the ADHD-addled of my generation should and could sit through, and enjoy, a great silent film if they only gave it a shot (and, of course, chose one worthy of their deficited attention). Certainly a silent film not done well is boring, just as a sound film would be, but done right, silence opens up new possibilities. The language of cinema becomes so much more important in the telling of a film without actual spoken language. A silent film that artistically uses cinematic language to tell its story and express its themes doesn’t feel so silent, it feels audible and communicative; it feels no different from a sound picture.
The best films of the silent era still have the power to dazzle us as much as the greatest of talkies. Take just about any Chaplin film, or any Keaton film, take Murnau’s Sunrise or Nosferatu, take Sjöström’s The Wind, take Lang’s Metropolis, take Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, all have as much artistic beauty and brilliance and can captivate a willing-to-be-receptive audience as well as any of the great films of the last decade. The same goes for the The Artist. I’d assume nearly anyone willing to be receptive will leave the theater satisfied. There’s no denying that the film offers an unparalleled cinematic experience, one of the best available in 2011. Who’d have thought in New York City you’d be able to go anywhere besides Film Forum or the MOMA to see a silent film? And no one would have guessed before the rumblings at Cannes a little less than a year ago that in 2011 a silent black-and-white film would be packing people in the theaters across this country (as much as a silent film could ever do).
Yes, The Artist, like Hugo, might not be perfect, but it is a truly great film about film, a love letter to cinema–it will get you laughing, touch your emotional side, it’ll charm your damn pants off and you’ll leave the theater grinning like the Cheshire Cat. It’s a feel good movie that doesn’t feel cheap in the way it gets you to feel good, it works for it. Most of the tricks up writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ sleeve are emulations of the films of the film era that The Artist is about, but none of the tools he uses feel old or worn. Is it just because it’s been so long since we’ve seen them used? Maybe a little, but I think it is also the mastery in the way Hazanavicius and his cast use these old tricks and tools of the trade in ways to elicit a new or different response. For example, a scene with Bérénice Bejo in a dressing room miming with a jacket is absolute perfection. Sure, it could have been in any number of 20s films with Constance Talmadge or Marion Davies, and actually is (though executed much differently) in the silent Seventh Heaven with Janet Gaynor (for which she won an Oscar), but the way it is done in The Artist not only constitutes one of the most truly romantic moments I’ve seen in a film in quite some time, but also feels entirely new, and entirely of The Artist, rather than merely homage. And that’s how the whole film feels: sure, it is a homage, and sure, it appropriates various silent film scenes, but it never feels stuck in the past, it always feels new and fun and clever in its approach. The Artist has an artistry all its own. The movie leaves one simultaneously nostalgic for a bygone era and yet excited for the freshness and newness the film offers, a reminder that there’s always a new cinematic experience just around the corner, even if it is harkening back to an older cinematic experience.
The question isn’t whether or not The Artist is good, but: how good is it? As I’ve hopefully expressed, while it may not be absolutely perfect, I’d argue that the movie is damn good and worthy of all the hype it’s been receiving. Oscar buzz is all around this seductive little silent gem. We’ve always heard from our parents, our libraries and our movie theaters that “silence is golden,” but now we’ll see if “silent is golden” (i.e. if a silent film 80 years after the introduction of sound in the cinema can take home Oscar gold). Though it’s not my favorite film of the year, I have to admit I’d be pretty excited to see a silent black-and-white French film take home the Oscar in 2011.
The Artist is a film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. It stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman. As silent movie star George Valentin wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion, he sparks with Peppy Miller, a young dancer set for a big break.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.
Design by Jillian Mercado
Press Photo from The Artist, Photography Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.