Every year, there seems to be a film that comes along so magical and original, so clever and poignant and fascinating, that you immediately and irrevocably fall passionately in love with it. Until next year. Usually, this is because there haven’t been any particularly decent films out as of yet, or everything else just feels like a shoddy grab for gold in the last vestiges of the cinematic season. Michel Hazanavicius, whose claim to fame appears to be creating the French Austin Powers, seems to have struck lightning with The Artist, an homage to the decline of the silent film era. While it’s not quite the bold experimental film that I’d love to give it credit for, it’s definitely a breath of fresh air. Hazanavicius made an actual silent film, complete with jaunty piano and string score, exaggerated gesture, dialogue cards, and in glorious black and white with two French leads famous mostly for being in his French espionage farces. There’s bound to be folks who want to cast it off as gimmicky, and it definitely suffers from some exceedingly slow pacing at points, but for me, this is the kind of film that reminds you why Turner Classic Movies exists and why those old-timey films they exhibit still have impact. The Artist is the most wonderful and delightful film I’ve seen all year, and my clear favorite. So far. Until next year.
A lot of lazy ass motherfuckers are going to simply dismiss this as a Singin’ In The Rain motif and cast it aside. Actually, and this might very well be why I loved it so hard, I think it’s more comparable to Black Dynamite. The Artist examines silent film and the history while itself actually being a silent film, and the story it chooses to act out is wryly melodramatic and fantastical, because it’s plotted like a silent film. The overall plot is about a silent film megastar who watches his career decline as silent films become talkies and as the young extra he courted becomes a superstar in the era of cinema sound. It’s a story that’s been done to death — out with the old, in with the new, rags to riches, adapt or die — but what’s important is how Michel Hazanavicius tells the story. So while the European in him can’t help but let the depression lead the film down a dark, miserable alley, the gleeful kid in him turns the slapstick and antics up to 11. There’s a rescue by terrier, a Keystone Kops setup, a Cagneyesque fire, a mad swerving car race against time, and dancing, dancing, dancing. The only thing he didn’t do was go full-on Harold Lloyd/Buster Keaton. But that’s the only thing.
While most of his cast is comprised of familiar American faces, you wonder why Hazanavicius chose two non-American actors for this film. And that wonder disappears the moment you see them on screen. Jean Dujardin looks like a silent film star. He’s got a brilliant smile underneath a pencil-thin mustache, and that Cary Grant swagger that Clooney keeps striving for. He’s perfectly matched with Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller, who could have been shaken out of the pages of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. She’s got that sort of herky-jerky flapper motion down solid, and she crackles with buoyant energy. Again, in a brilliant layering of the whole studio era filmmaking, Hazanavicius used two actors who are familiar with each other and have a palpable chemistry.
The rest of the cast is equally excellent — a splendid mix of welcome talent. John Goodman plays the studio head honcho with equal parts obsequiousness and bluster. Missi Pyle seethes as the studio head’s gal, the starlet who rages because she doesn’t get the same limelight as Valentin. James Cromwell plays a good guy for once, the dedicated butler to George Valentin. Let’s all give a resounding “Yay!” for Penelope Ann Miller for getting a good part in a good film, which hasn’t happened in a while. (Seriously, I was in high school when she was last doing well.) She’s superb as George’s high-society wife. She was born for that 1920’s wave and breakfasting in a chenille dressing gown. You also have Ken Davitian (famous for naked wrestling with Borat), Beth Grant (and her commitment to Sparkle Motion), Joel Murray (who I will always adore for One Crazy Summer), and Malcolm McDowell (really, I need to mention what he does so well? He’s the British Christopher Walken).
The Artist will get nominated for several awards, because it’s the kind of film that created the Art Direction and Costume Design categories for. It’s also the kind of film that the trailer gives away the entire plot and any surprises. However, as I said and will continue to say until a screenwriter finally hears me, it’s not the fucking A to B of the story that matters, but how you tell it. And The Artist is beautifully told. That it came from a filmmaker famous mostly for his wacky spy spoof gives me hope that perhaps Neveldine and Taylor are simply making wacky films to raise money to do a big screen remake of The Ten Commandments. Except in their version, Moses (Jason Statham) surfs down the avalanching Mount Ararat on the tablet that contains Commandments 11-15 before parkouring Pharoah’s temple to parkour Pharoah in the temple. Also one of the plagues is heroin. The Artist is amazing.