If you’ve heard anything about this movie, which won a Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival for Best Actor, it’s probably the fact that it’s silent. As in no dialogue. As in WTF? This may explain why its screening on a Sunday morning in Cannes failed to fill the house. Apart from Mel Brooks’ gimmicky “Silent Movie” in 1976 , isn’t there a good reason we haven’t had a silent feature film in almost 100 years? We don’t generally revert back to obsolete technology; no one longs for the good old days of 8 track tapes, right?
To be honest, I wasn’t all that excited about going to see a silent movie. Had it not been for the facts that it starred Jean Dujardin, was the opening night film for the festival, and being a French movie, I would not have rushed to see it. It’s a good thing there were greater forces at work because this movie is wonderful! And I urge you to see it opening weekend, in a large, full theater. This movie is best seen collectively; it’s the closest we may ever come to experiencing what it may have been like to see a movie when movies were new.
Jean Dujardin plays silent film star George Valentin (the name perhaps a wink to silent screen star Rudolph Valentino?). Dujardin’s theatrical experience gives him the chops to carry this film without uttering more than one word. He brings the same David Niven-like sophistication he brought to the OSS films he also did with director Michel Hazanavicius without the boorish-oaf element. (I loved those movies and highly recommend them: “OSS: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” 2007 and “OSS: Lost in Rio,” 2009.)
Unfortunately, his performance is weakened because it is difficult to read his lips; this contrast becomes apparent when John Goodman appears on screen. We don’t need to wait to read the dialogue card to know what his character is saying. Bérénice Bejo, (another English-is-not-their-first-language actor) who plays Valentin’s protégée, Peppy Miller, has the same liability to a lesser degree. However, this issue will not, should not be cause for interference. (I just wanted to give you a heads-up.)
I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot; the preview I’ve linked to hints that it concerns a silent screen star’s issue with the transition to “talkies.” Let me just encourage you to take note of one of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a movie all year: George is standing on a stair landing at the Kinograph studios; the frame encompasses three stories, he is the only still being in a hive of activity. In a film in which the story is told by everything but words, it is a sublime moment.
1920s Hollywood is recreated with “Mad Men”-like attention to detail minus the wink to the present day. It’s great to see a little less of John Goodman so we can enjoy his performance rather than worry about his health. Other than my previous criticism, there is not a false note, nor wasted moment in this entire movie.
Finally, this movie begs for the creation of a new category at the Academy Awards: Best Performance by a non-CGI-created animal: Uggie the dog would be a sh00-in.
“The Artist” opens nationwide November 25, 2011.