By William Wolf

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2011--THE ARTIST  Send This Review to a Friend

French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius brilliantly creates a silent movie that is at once immensely entertaining and a reminder of what good silents were like in their heyday before talkies replaced them. Hazanavicius doesn’t resort to camp or satire, but wisely applies his considerable artistry and imagination to meticulously constructing “The Artist” as a viable drama with the humor of life and the kind of plot that one might have conceived back in the 1920s. The cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman is in pristine black and white, and the cast is absolutely on target in picking up the proper esprit of the story and characterizations. Obviously a labor of love, the film constitutes an affectionate homage to the era while at the same time packing the ingredients to amuse and even move a contemporary audience, as was evidenced by the prolonged cheering at the Toronto Festival screening that I attended.

There is, of course, a score (music by Ludovic Bource), as silent films were accompanied by an orchestra or, in smaller theaters, by a pianist or organist. The inter-titles are sharply to the point. There are a few clever punctuations of sound, but the director has been faithful to his concept. It would seem that among his influences were the works of Charlie Chaplin, as parts of the film express the sort of tender, humanist touches that mark various Chaplin treasures and thereby deepen the nostalgia.

The plot involves George Valentin, given a colorful performance by the perfectly cast Jean Dujardin, as a handsome, successful star of the silent screen. But the advent of sound wrecks his career and his life, for with the new milieu audiences want new faces and change. Meanwhile, an exuberant, talented young woman whom Valentin has discovered and helped, Bérénice Bejo in a marvelous, upbeat performance as the aptly named Peppy Miller, is rising to the top and fits right into the new era of talkies. Sentimentality abounds as she doesn’t forget Valentin. Bejo is a whirlwind force in the role.

Hazanavicius applies a great post-silent plot resolution that adds to the overall fun and keeps the film clipping along entertainingly. It is remarkable how he finds the bridge for a present-day audience while remaining true to his vision of a silent film. The plot may bring to mind the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” but while that gloried in the comic aspect of silent stars who had no voices for talkies, “The Artist” takes the transition problem seriously and pinpoints its emotional side.

“The Artist” is a film to study for the freshness the director brings to it. When talkies first came on the scene, some regretted the evolution just when the art form had reached such skill. Alfred Hitchcock for one worried that sound would spoil what had been achieved in the silent era. Thus Hazanavicius has produced a work that can serve as an educational reminder of how good silent films could be.

As for his cast, which also includes James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and John Goodman, should talkies ever go out of style (admittedly only a fantasy), the actors in “The Artist” demonstrate that they need have no fear. They could skillfully fit right into acting with their expressions and body language, as they do so effectively and endearingly here. Mark “The Artist” down as one of the year’s most creative and refreshing accomplishments. A Weinstein Company release.

  

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