Silent Cinema Reborn
Published on November 21st, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer4
“The Artist” (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) opens Wednesday, November 23.
Running time: 100 mins. Rated PG-13
French director Michel Hazanavicius’s charmingly funny and at times surprisingly moving new feature “The Artist” is not only the first silent film to come along in ages but also quite arguably one of the best silent films to come along since F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece “Sunrise,” incidentally one of the key influences on “The Artist.” In some ways, “The Artist” is superior to all the films made during the silent era after which it is so painstakingly and exquisitely modeled because of how masterfully it uses most of those films’ best techniques while enjoying the benefits of over eighty years of hindsight and technological development. The film’s narrative, only slightly newer than its endearingly anachronistic style, seems heavily inspired by both fact: the real-life Hollywood drama of Greta Garbo trying to resuscitate John Gilbert’s ailing career by getting him cast opposite her in her 1933 star vehicle “Queen Christina”; and fiction: the 1932 film “What Price Hollywood?” along with two of its progeny, the 1937 films “A Star Is Born” and “It Happened in Hollywood.” Each of these latter three films is about an older male film artist seeing his own career falling apart as the pretty young ingénue he introduced to show business becomes the new sensation. In those films, as well as in “The Artist,” the young female star is extremely sympathetic and reaches out earnestly and thoughtfully to help the old-timer. (Lest I spoil plots, however, I won’t say how any of these stories turns out.)
Although “The Artist” tells an old story in an even older style, it nevertheless still looks and feels fresh, in large part because it is so well cast, with Jean Dujardin playing the titular “artist” George Valentin as a winning, dashingly handsome, seamless blend of Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, William Powell, Fredric March and Fred Astaire (and in roughly that order); and Bérénice Bejo playing the ingénue Peppy Miller as a simultaneously cute and gorgeous swirl of Janet Gaynor, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers. The film also stars John Goodman as an Edward Arnold-esque producer and James Cromwell as Valentin’s faithful manservant.
“The Artist” pays adoring and adorable homage to Hollywood—and not just to its pre-talkies heyday—quite thoroughly yet unselfconsciously, with so many clear but subtle references. But it never feels as if it’s copying anything, even as it points back obviously to “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Top Hat” and every movie to previously make use of the stunning central atrium of Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building.
“The Artist” expertly reinvents the silent cinema as nothing more nor less than a new and improved version of what it already was, but somehow in doing so it manages to feel like a major accomplishment, perhaps just because it’s such a good film, one that only gets better the more times you see it.