$10.50 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50
“The Artist,” which unspooled for critics recently at the New York Film Festival, may be the ultimate high concept film. The pitch would be something like this: “We remake ‘A Star Is Born’ as a silent movie in black and white but with one major twist — it’s a comedy.”
That is exactly what helmer/scribe/cutter Michel Hazanavicius did — right down to the touches. “The Artist” boasts credits in an art deco font, the 4 to 3 aspect ratio in use during the silent era, black and white photography, and title cards for dialogue. Pic, set in Hollywood, is a French production, and the title cards are in English. The silent treatment works for this comedy. The broad gestures common to silent film lend themselves to sight gags. “The Artist” gets a laugh about every 90 seconds.
Plot is fairly straightforward. Matinee idol George Valentin, played by French actor Jean Dujardin, is at the height of his fame in 1927, making picture after picture which are variations on the same swashbuckling theme. The opening reel sets the stage. Valentin holds the black tie audience for the premiere of “A Russian Affair” in the palm of his hand as he takes his bows, putting his dog, a too-cute-for-words Jack Russell Terrier who appears in all his films, played by movie dog Uggie, on stage before his co-star, Constance (Missi Pyle), girlfriend of studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman). For this Constance punches Valentin off-stage.
Although full of himself, Valentin still oozes charm. And he is kind to small animals. Uggie accompanies him everywhere. Since his wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), is colder tham — well, you get the idea — their breakfast scenes remind one of the breakfast scenes from “Citizen Kane,” it seems that other than chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell) Uggie is Valentin’s only friend.
Enter Peppy Miller, played by the deliciousment gamine Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo (who happens to be married to helmer Hazanavicius) who slips through a police line at the premiere to have her picture with Valentin land on the font page of Variety under the headline, “Who’s That Girl?”
A dancer with ambition, she lands a part as an extra in one of Valentin’s films, and promptly gets fired by Zimmer, who complains that because of her picture, his picture was not mentioned in Variety until page five. Valentin sticks up for her and saves her job. Extra for film buffs: There is thoroughly Marxist dance scene leading up to that event. It resembles the looking glass scene between Harpo Marx and Groucho Marx from “Monkey Business” which was reprised years later on television by Harpo and Lucille Ball in an episode of “I Love Lucy.”
Peppy’s career takes off. Then come talking pictures in 1929. Peppy embraces them and becomes Hollywood’s biggest star. Valentin has nightmares in which he can’t talk. It comes at about mid-pic. Everything else can be heard, but Valentin cannot utter a sound.
Valentin refuses to do talking pictures. “I am an artist,” he says — or at least that’s what the title cards say he says. “People come to see me, not to hear me speak.”
Valentin’s career tanks. His wife throws him out. He loses everything in the stock market crash. Anyone who has seen “A Star Is Born” knows the rest. Valentin hits rock bottom. On the way down there is a scene of nitrite film going up in flames that reminds your critic of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 “Cinema Paradiso.”
But this is a comedy, not a tragedy! Peppy is revealed to have been backstopping Valentin throughout his slide. A Hollywood ending is mandatory, and Hazanavicius does not disappoint. Final reel offers pic’s only scene with full sound and therein reveals it’s shaggy dog (apologies to Uggie) aspect for a double payoff.
Your critic has just one quibble. Pic is full of period automobiles, but they are just a tad too new for the period — by about three to five years. Valentin’s Lincoln would not have been made by 1927, and Peppy’s 16 cylinder Cadillac which is supposed to be driven in 1932 actually is a product of 1934 to ‘37.
Tech credits are superb. Lensing by Guillaume Schiffman rises to the heights. The musical score by Ludovic Bource is up to carrying 98 percent of pic’s audio, and Laurence Bennett’s production design is spot-on. Hazanavicius could have cut about ten of pic’s 100 minutes. Valentin’s decline is a tad overdone. Thesps (including Malcolm McDowell in a brief appearance as a studio extra) are more than up to the task.
“The Artist” is rated PG-13. One suspects that it would have been PG if not for Valentin’s drinking and an attempted suicide. Take the kids. If they know anything about movies, they’ll love it.