It wasn't long ago that Martin Scorcese's Hugo, which worked in a bit of film history landed in theaters. Now, just weeks later, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist has arrived, taking place roughly three decades later in time. Hugo uses modern technology (including 3D) to pay tribute to cinema's earliest films, while The Artist uses mostly old technology and technique. Surprisingly, the old fashioned film winds up as the superior film, and by quite some margin (remember, however, that I'm part of the small contingent who thought Hugo was a mess...).
And when I say that The Artist is old-fashioned, I really mean it. Though I'll assume that it was edited on digital (when was the last time a film was cut by hand...?), Hazanavicius hasn't just made a movie about the silent era, he's made a movie that belongs in that era, and I mean that as a compliment. Even the opening credits are done exactly in the style of the late 20s and early 30s. The director's latest, which picked up the Best Actor prize for its leading man back at Cannes, centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film superstar whose career is threatened by the dawn of sound.
The best thing about The Arist is that it keeps everything simple. The story is simple (it's basically Singin' in the Rain with a few big changes), the conflict is simple, and the emotions are simple. While this could have been the film's Achilles heel, Hazanavicius and company turn it into its greatest strength. The Artist is a sincere silent film, yet because it has been made just over 80 years since the start of the sound era, it has the ability to work as a standalone film and a tribute to those films. Dujardin perfectly captures Valentin's transition from a man on top of the world to a man faced with obsolescence practically over night. That he looks so much like a movie idol from the silent era only adds to the portrayal's effectiveness. Though he and co-star Berenice Bejo (also a delight to watch) speak many of their lines, only a few are transcribed on title cards, and Hazanavicius is wise in keeping the cards to a minimum. The actors' faces speak the emotions, even if we can't quite lip read everything they say.
But surely, this whole thing can't be silent, can it? Well, not exactly. There are a handful of sound effects in an excellent dream/nightmare sequence, and just a hint of spoken dialogue (where it comes in, I won't say). The only other sound, though, is Ludovic Bource's almost non-stop score. So despite bit parts played by John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Missi Pyle, the other true star of the film is Mr. Bource, whose music instills the whole film with a liveliness it may have completed lacked were the film 100% silent. The music is big, rich, and grand, and it always feels appropriate. In the two brief moments where the score vanishes, you instantly long for its return, and Hazanavicius knows exactly when to bring it back in. Guillaume Schiffman's rich, black and white cinematography is also aces, perfectly capturing the look and feel of old films without feeling creaky or stuffy.
So even though the story feels like it's about to wind down before introducing one last piece of drama, it's hard to go too hard on the film because Hazanavicius has pulled the whole thing off with such skill. Despite its simplicity, The Artist doesn't dumb itself down. The humor may be straightforward, but it feels authentic. Hazanavicius also handles the story's transition from light comedy to melodrama to the point where it feels seamless, rather than two films awkwardly stitched together, which easily could have been the case. Coupled with the score, and Dujardin and Bejo's performances, this result is one of the most delightful films of the year, as well as one of the best, capped off by a fantastic finale that ranks as one of the year's best scenes. So even though it may be silent, The Artist still manages to speak volumes.