Oscar Movie Month: "The Artist" Review

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Hollywood 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. The advent of the talkies will sound the death knell for his career and see him fall into oblivion. In contrast, for the young extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), it seems that the sky’s the limit - major movie stardom awaits. This silent film tells the story of their interlinked destinies.
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Oscar Movie Month: "The Artist" Review

-- Rating: PG-13 (a disturbing image, crude gesture)
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2012
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance

Filmmakers have tried to occasionally make black-and-white movies in the modern age, with varying degrees of success. Most directors wouldn't touch silent films at all, but "The Artist" tackles both genres and succeeds due to a winning cast and a funny plot that doesn't require the utterance of a single word to work.

The film opens with George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a highly successful silent film actor who is at the top of his game. Studio executive Al Zimmer (John Goodman) loves George and all the profits he rakes in for the studio, but still encourages him to look towards the next big thing, including "talkies," the name given to films with spoken dialogue. Talkies were in their infancy at the time, and George can't see a future for himself in them. He continues making silent films, even as wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) kicks him out of the house and he begins to have money problems. To the world, he is a star who has it all, but when he goes home at night, he realizes he has a crumbling life with very little to show for his success.

Enter the spunky Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an aspiring dancer and actress who auditions for a small part in George's next film. He is instantly smitten and uses his clout to get her hired onto the film. They begin to fall in love, but their romance is very short-lived as Peppy's star begins to rise just as George's begins to fall. She begins to get noticed by Zimmer and other executives, who cast her in talkies, where she finds huge success. Though she and George are no longer together, she never forgets him, and tries to figure out a way to get them back together.

Meanwhile, George is sinking under a pile of debt and has to pawn some of his treasures just to go to the bar and have a drink. Only his dog Uggy and chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell) seem to care about him anymore, despite the fact that George hasn't paid Clifton his salary in months. Just as George is hitting rock bottom, Peppy returns to try and save him, believing him to be the love of her life. She devises a plan to get him his career back, but it could be too late. Will a despondent George allow her to pick him up and dust him off, or will he continue to mire in self-pity?

Actors are asked to do some fairly impressive things in order to play a role in a film. Some are asked to gain or lose copious amounts of weight, while others may be asked to learn self-defense or gun skills in order to make fight scenes look realistic. In "The Artist," the actors are asked to express emotions without words, which is a talent from a bygone era. Each cast member does a splendid job with this difficult task, performing feats of facial acrobatics that would make even Jim Carrey proud. They get their points across with zealousness and humor that make for a very crowd pleasing film. Even the most jaded moviegoers will likely have a smile on their faces by the end of the film. Those who don't care for black-and-white or silent films will probably still find themselves grinning upon viewing "The Artist."

When there is no spoken dialogue in a film, background music becomes vitally important. Composer Ludovic Bource put together an original score that really enhances the film and fits seamlessly in with the action. The score was so good that it won an Oscar and helped Bource gain international attention in the form of the Breakout Composer of the Year award from the International Film Music Critics Association They are both richly deserved awards that could garner Bource a long career as a film and television composer.

Director Michel Hazanavicius, who also wrote the script, does a fantastic job of pacing the action and gets great performances out of the entire ensemble cast. In particular, the leads Dujardin and Bejo are resplendent on the screen, especially when they are in the same scenes. Dujardin and Hazanavicius have some history together, having made the French James Bond parody "OSS 117." Nobody else in the cast had worked with Hazanavicius or on a silent film before, which makes all the performances more impressive. This is likely a big reason why "The Artist" won Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor, and the highly-coveted Best Picture categories.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars