(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: For fear of spoilers I will not say what the other current movie is that is a tribute to the silent film days. Still the two films would be interesting to compare. But rather than just giving clips, THE ARTIST is an entire feature film, virtually all created in the style of the monochrome silent motion pictures. And just that novelty sustains the film for most of its length. THE ARTIST is a charming French-Belgian production set in good old Hollywood in that late 1920s and early 1930s. Somewhere along the line it becomes obvious that THE ARTIST does not attain the heights a Chaplin or a Fairbanks film might. The novelty fades and one might be watching a somewhat run of the mill silent. Still the experience brings back memories of some great silent movies. The plot may be a bit similar to A STAR IS BORN, but as a reminder of the greatness of silent films, this is one of the must-sees of the season. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

I was discussing European spy films with a friend, and he brought up OSS 117, a spy who had been in spy novels since 1949. I found there was an OSS 117 film on Netflix Streaming, namely OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES. I had to admit it was a very good comedy. A few months later they has a second comedy thriller, OSS 117: LOST IN RIO also for streaming. These were not straight stories and seemed more interested in parodying James Bond films. And both were hilarious. The writer and director was Michel Hazanavicius and the title agent was played by Jean Dujardin, a comedic actor who could do a great parody performance, almost an impression of Sean Connery. I recommend both OSS 117 films for a good time. I was also intrigued when a trailer told me that virtually the same team was making a sort of parody of silent movies called THE ARTIST.

Mel Brooks tried his hand at making his humorous SILENT MOVIE, but did not stick very closely to the conventions of the 1920s. Now Hazanavicius was attempting the same feat. And starring in the film is Jean Dujardin, who in the trailer and later the film does a great semi-smarmy impression of a silent film matinee idol. This meant that in addition to whatever statement THE ARTIST itself might have been making, the film itself would probably be a reaction against movies going to 3D and audiences who think that monochrome films give viewers headaches (and 3D glasses do not). Just making that statement and fighting the popular trends is more than a little quixotic. But THE ARTIST is already showing up on critics' top ten lists for 2011. Seeing this recreation of the silent film conventions has the same nostalgic feel as seeing 42ND STREET on Broadway.

THE ARTIST is a reminder of some of the negative aspects of silent film. The silent conventions meant less plot could be conveyed in the same length of time just because it is hard to convey plot complexity when all conversations require title cards. Imagine trying to do ALL ABOUT EVE as a silent film. Seeing some of what went into pre-Motion Picture Production Code films, it is ironic to call them innocent, but even the ones with nudity told somewhat simplistic and innocent stories. This is a film is which the scenario is very much high-concept. The plot is a variation on A STAR IS BORN. A popular silent film matinee idol, George Valentin (Dujardin), basks in the adulation of his fans. One of the throng is a young newcomer to Hollywood, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, also of OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES). After a quick run-in with Valentin Miller she is smitten and Valentin is much the same, but neither really approaches the other as anything but friends.

But hard times are coming to Hollywood. The 1-2-3 punch of the stock market crash, sound coming to films, and the Depression leaves Valentin decreasingly popular and unable to find work, while Peppy Miller is a flavor the public cannot get enough of. But in the film business the ticket-buying public is always right and that makes Valentin all wrong. (It makes one to wonder if there is much point in railing against high-tech films in 3D and shaky seats. The public will decide that issue also.) THE ARTIST is the story of one new star headed for success and another whose star is falling.

Part of the problem here is the film itself argues against its own point. The pacing is slowed by the medium of silent film. There just is not a lot of story here. Once one gets over the novelty of a different medium and a few cleverly shot scenes this film is no more or less intriguing than one of many silent films shown on Turner Classic Movies. The stylistic anachronism does not do a lot for the power of the story telling.

Dujardin gives a nearly pitch-perfect performance and has a face that naturally seems to combine features of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Fredric March. Bejo is fetching but conveys no strong personality. As a studio executive John Goodman is believable. James Cromwell is his usual likeable persona as Clifton the loyal chauffeur. Underused is Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin's wife. Uggie (who played Queenie in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS) turns in a sentimental and likable performance while simultaneously stealing his every scene. (Come to think of it, if he did play Queenie it passed as an unnoted gender-bending role.)

Though a silent film THE ARTIST has some scenes with clever uses of sound, particularly in one dream sequence. But Hazanavicius soon returns to standard silent-film styles of storytelling, which admittedly can be moving. Some of the score is original but there is a thick, juicy slice of Bernard Herrmann music late in the film. Watch for multiple references to films like THE MARK OF ZORRO. There is even a reference to French super-villain Fantomas. The film is shot in the old 1.37:1 aspect ratio. After a summer of 3D films this fall at least two filmmakers have decided that it is time to remember the glories of black and white silent films. They are wrong, of course. It is well past time. I rate THE ARTIST a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper