In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d pay tribute to a film that I’ve fallen unabashedly in love with recently: THE ARTIST. I know this movie has a lot of hype swirling around it, which is usually a deterrent for me since I don’t like bandwagon hopping…or at least the perception of it. (But who am I kidding? While I may have waited for the dust to settle, I’ve hopped on plenty of bandwagons this year, including MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, and HOMELAND. And I’ve already got DOWNTON ABBEY lined up in the queue!) Yes, bloggy readers, THE ARTIST had me from scene-stealing Uggie the dog…and it never released its hold on me.
As you probably know by now, THE ARTIST tells the story of silent film actor George Valentin (ah, more holiday parallels!) and his resistance to the new world of talking pictures. He dismisses the state-of-the-art technology as a fad, but eventually realizes that his stubborn ego will leave him abandoned in the oblivion of whatever-happened-to-him? Meanwhile, a gorgeous young actress named Peppy Miller, who beguiled George during a pre-talkie film shoot, embraces the world of sound and her star rises.
The film is shot in black and white and there’s <gasp!> no dialogue in it. Some may claim it’s a gimmick, but I think it’s a risky choice. Much like the first twenty minutes of WALL-E, here’s a film that relies solely on story…and music…and faces. Beautiful faces. (Did I mention the two leads are French? And have beautiful, camera-loving, photogenic faces? Oh la la!) Granted, the tale of George Valentin isn’t revolutionary – in fact, it’s kinda the love child of SUNSET BOULEVARD and A STAR IS BORN, but with a happier ending. Yet director Michel Hazanavicius makes all the right choices in capturing the humor, romance, heartbreak, and joy to be found in the film.
One sequence that really “wowed” me is when George and Peppy are first working together on a film. He’s the lead and she’s an extra. In the amusing scene being shot, George plays a spy on a mission who has to make his way through a crowded dance floor. Along the way, he has to dance a bit with Peppy before handing her off and moving onto the next dancer. The problem is, when George starts dancing with Peppy he becomes so entranced with her that he forgets to move on to the next dancer. It happens a few times, requiring retake after retake. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo play the scene perfectly, showcasing a lovely mix of attraction and embarrassment. (Did I mention that they’re BEAUTIFUL?) And the other “extras” dancing around them are also pitch perfect as they crack up at the entranced couple. Also, like so many other early moments in the movie, the dance scene ends up playing a critical part later on. Hazanavicius aptly pays off all he sets up, which is a screenplay structure lesson in itself.
But I guess why I am particularly fond of this film is because of my experience seeing it. It was back in October when I attended the Austin Film Festival; THE ARTIST was one of the movies being screened. I was curious to check it out since it was generating a lot of buzz on the festival circuit. I went with my friend Mindy to Austin’s historic Paramount Theater – a huge space complete with a mezzanine and two balconies. The place was packed for THE ARTIST.
As the movie unfurled, you could sense an energy throughout the crowd as we absorbed the images in front of us. It was that wonderful, unique feeling of sharing an experience with a group of strangers that is both thrilling and unifying. The audience laughed and sniffled and gasped in all the right places – and at the end of the screening you could feel the collective warmth and enthusiasm for this film. I was reminded of why I love movies so much and, more importantly, the magic of the movie-going experience. Like an amazing concert or a heart-stopping sports event, cinema does have the ability to bring human beings together. And I think that’s a gift to celebrate on Valentine’s Day.