Saturday, December 17, 2011

Review: The Artist

Many films have attempted, on one level or another, to imitate the style and techniques of a bygone era of filmmaking. All slasher films, for example, are essentially reverse engineered from Psycho and Halloween. Quinten Tarrantino and Robert Rodriguez have often included elements of old 70's Grindhouse era movies in their films (and brought it to it's logical conclusion in the ill fated Grindhouse double feature film, which attempted to copy more than the aesthetic and shamelessness). And while copying the styles and techniques of silent era films is technically nothing new (they've been used in everything from 2010's The Illusionist, to Young Frankenstein to even Van Helsing) it's never been quite this gung-ho about it, nor anywhere near as successful in both it's mimicry and in it's overall quality.

And when I say it's copying silent films, I mean it right down to the wire. No dialogue, no sound effects (except for two scenes). Just music and the occasional title card to indicate what people are saying. The effect may be a little strange on people who have never seen silent films, but as a personal fan of them (my favorite silent film, for the record, is Metropolis) I found it's imitation endearing and unique, allowing the actors to branch out their performances in ways you might not expect.

The plot, in an interestingly metatextual twist, is also concerned with silent films. Jean Dujardin has the lead as George Valentin, a 1927 silent film star who seems to act as a mix of James Bond and Zorro. He meets an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller coincidentally and gives her bit part and some advice. 2 years later, talkies are beginning to break out, but George is reluctant to change, and sinks all of his money into a silent film, while Peppy is the up and coming star of the new wave of talkies. His film tanks as the Great Depression hits and George begins to despair.

Most of the film is Dujardin's show and he owns it, keeping his performance subtle, while still managing to imitate the style and acting techniques of old silent film actors. He also gets strong supporting work from John Goodman and James Cromwell, with Goodman acting being more in line with silent films and Cromwell's performance tending more towards quiet dignity. And it must be said, Bernice Bejo as Peppy Miller gives some of the best, most effective work in the film. She comes dangerously close to completely stealing the show from Dujardin whenever she's on screen and it will be criminal if he gets nominated for an Oscar and she doesn't.

The film was directed by French director Michel Hazanavicius and he gives it his all, with subtly beautiful camera work. At least two shots in this film rank up as some of the best camera work all year (you'll know them when you see them). The soundtrack, naturally has to stand in for dialogue and set the mood for any given scene, and it does an amazing job. It's easily some of the best soundtrack work you'll hear all year.

Look, this is the time of year when the theatrical releases are split between generally fairly shitty (not always shitty, but often) family films, like comedies and light actions, and the big Oscar favorites. This is definitely in the latter category. And while I was aware it was being talked up as a big Oscar film before I saw it, I was surprised by it's level of quality. It's subtle, beautiful, inventive and frequently moving, and it would be a worthy best picture winner. So while I don't know how wide it's release is right now, if it's playing near you, do not miss it. See you next time.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and it's really weird to see actors I know are alive now appearing in a film that could have been made 80 years ago.

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