You Talk Too Much, You Worry Me to Death
Shot in California, The Artist is French, with French leads supported by American character actors and universal appeal. It comes in black-and-white and nearly entirely silent -- apart from effective short sound three-quarters in and final frames -- so inter-titles replace American-abhorred subtitles. A bonbon to movies as they used to be, this New York Film Festival selection is a treat.
Sharing a Q&A with his producer, leads and three supporting actors, director/screenwriter Michel Hazanavicius indicated challenges in such a work, where “everything is in the image . . . and it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensorial that works on the feelings.” For reasons that included ease and a slightly grainier period feel, the ninety-eight minutes was shot in color then transferred to b&w at an unnoticeable twenty-two frames per second. (Silents were at twelve to twenty f.p.s., sound at twenty-four.)
Even with story pretty much known or sensed in advance, the result is more than mere homage and -- mirabile dictu -- funny in truth beyond the sitcom canned pap that passes for comedy. Argentine but the director’s longtime companion in Paris, star Bérénice Béjo noted the rarity of a French film about American cinema, and the cast and crews’ physically and mentally steeping themselves in Hollywoodiana. Many were the names mentioned by all seven at the press conference: Hitchcock and Murnau, Chaplin and Lombard and Douglas Fairbanks, George Brent and William Powell and Asta the dog, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Swanson, Dietrich, Tintin, and Garbo and John Gilbert and company.
Indeed, the latter pair are at the familiar starting point, he inheriting Valentino’s lover mantle only to sputter with the advent of sound and die an alcoholic at forty-one. No one there recalled the Your Show of Shows skit in which Sid Caesar’s actor-character regains popularity when water is thrown on him to hoarsen his high voice for talkies.
It is the Twenties of suits and dresses, top hats and cloches, movie houses that are palaces where movies are still dreams of life rather than today’s substitutes for life. Audiences flock to George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) romantic adventure melodramas. Hammy but personable, invariably with his actor-dog (Uggy) -- “if he could just talk!” -- he lives in style with luxury-loving wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and is chauffeured and secretaried by loyal Clifton (James Cromwell). Among admirers outside his latest box-office bonanza, he briefly exchanges glances with Pepi, later Peppy, Miller (Béjo), who soon personalities and hoofs her way into an extra’s spot at Kinograph Studios.
They exchange deeper glances shooting a dance scene, and she is smitten enough to sneak into his dressing room for a tender bit with his empty suit jacket. In this pre-Twittersphere world, celebrities’ lives were private, and no time is wasted on trivia as from bottom-line chorine she rises in credits film after film to become the It girl of the day, squired by hunks she pooh-poohs as “Toys.”
Stogie-chomping studio execs are intrigued by the possibilities of sound. (Ironically in light of this film, voiced dialogues at first ended an era of international movies.) His back up as well as against the wall, Valentin scoffs, breaks with them, and writes cheques to direct and star in his old-style adventure Tears of Love. (SPOILER ALERT) Opening day, October 25, is an unfortunate choice, as lines for her also-premièring Beauty Spot -- George had first penciled hers in back in the day -- leave no one for his empty screening. The year is unfortunate, too, 1929, as his depleted bankroll goes belly up with the Market. Doris is unhappy -- everyone is, he sulks -- and walks out on the broken and broke fallen star, who puts his things up for auction (including Wise Monkeys who do not see, hear, or speak [talk]), pawns his suit, moves into shabby digs, and “fires” unpaid Clifton but gives him the car.
Things may lag slightly here in the decline into sadness and drink, but that is only relative. He has been told he is too proud; sensitive to this, Peppy is careful that he not suspect she is keeping tabs on him. At his two lowest moments, he is rescued by the dog to a hilarious printed “Bang!” and the once-was actor and now-is actress tap-dance their joint way into and brighten Depression era cinema hearts.
Its title might refer to anyone connected with The Artist. Never stooping to the self-indulgent silliness of, say, a Silent Movie, it is pitch perfect in silence from the very opening sans-serif credits against burlap. Its only problem will be an Oscar category -- foreign but not foreign-language, Best Picture would not be out of place for this fun for buff and casual filmgoer and, said Beth Grant (Peppy’s maid), those who made it.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated "PG-13" for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.)