Who would’ve thought a black-and-white
silent French film would be entertaining in this day and age? Because I
am a movie lover, and I trust the Motion Picture Academy’s taste in
quality films (even though I may not agree with their choice on Best
Picture), I was willing to take a chance and pay full-blown theater
admission to see this year’s Oscar winner, The Artist.
Fabulous, fabulous! A delight
and truly a clever and enjoyable film that is beyond memorable. It is
one for the whole family—clean and no bad language—and it is best seen
on a big screen if you are able to find it near you.
Initially, it felt a bit strange
watching the screen with no color or dialogue, but the use of lilting
music and the wonderful acting from Jean Dujardin (who won the Oscar
for Best Actor) and Berenice Bejo quickly makes up for it. The story
begins in the late ’20s with silent movie star George Valentin (played
by Dujardin) at the pinnacle of his career. As crowds of adoring fans
meet him outside the theater, young beautiful admirer Peppy Miller
(played by Bejo) has the good fortune of being singled out by George.
She gets her picture in the newspapers posing with her favorite star,
and this brief fifteen minutes of fame is enough to encourage her to
pursue a career as an actress.
The next day, she reports to the
auditions for a position as an extra in George’s next film, and wins
the part. She meets him again on set and sparks fly—she is a beautiful
dancer and he is inspired by her talent. When they finally get the
opportunity to act together, George is so smitten that he can’t
concentrate on his role and loses sense of everything else around him,
requiring the director to refilm the scene over and over. This is one
of the most moving moments in the film, combining the richness of
comedy, melodrama, and romance. Peppy feels the connection with George
too, and we have a great love story on our hands.
As the years pass, Peppy’s
career develops, but George’s begins to stall. With the introduction of
sound to motion pictures, the tide of filmmaking begins to change.
George scoffs at the idea of “talkies” but is warned by the studio boss
(played by John Goodman) that this new technology is the way of the
future. Peppy is chosen as one of the new sound stars while George is
out on his own.
night George has a dream in which he is in his dressing room and
experiences hearing sound for the first time. As he sets his glass on
the table, the clink startles him, the clock begins to ticks, the door
creaks, sending him into hysterics, and yet he is mute. It is a
haunting but perfect metaphor for this sudden
unexpected turn in
his life. A new era has been ushered in, an era that is exciting to
everyone in the world except for George Valentin. For him, sound is
confusing and confounding, an enemy to be defeated.
George retaliates against the
studio’s decision by digging into his savings and producing his own
silent film, which happens to open on the same weekend as Peppy’s first
talking feature. While his movie flops, hers is an instant success,
propelling her to stardom. George now finds himself broke and all but
forgotten. He drinks excessively, sells off all of his belongings
(which Peppy secretly buys at auction), and eventually moves into an
apartment after his wife forces him out of their home. In a fit of
total despair, he burns all of his movies, catching his entire
apartment on fire, but at the last minute he retrieves one roll of
film, risking his life in the process.
While things go from bad to
worse for George, Peppy’s life is everything she has dreamed—and yet
there is something missing. She still thinks of George and their brief
connection years ago when they worked together—he a huge movie star and
she just an extra. She secretly follows George, saddened by his reduced
state. When she learns of his narrow brush with the apartment fire, she
rushes to his hospital bedside and brings him to her lush mansion to
recover. Hoping to restore his career, she uses her influence with the
studio and negotiates a film project where she and George can star
together. But George will not agree. He is vehemently opposed to sound.
I won’t give away any more,
other than to say that George has to hit rock bottom before he can
accept Peppy’s love and find a way to be happy in this new world of
talking films. In case you’re wondering what movie George clambered
through the fire to retrieve, you may be surprised to know it was the
outtakes with Peppy in her first role as an extra. Again, another
metaphor for life—nothing in the past is worth saving or holding on to
other than the hope of a better future. Despite George’s failures, he
never gave up on the hope of a future with that budding actress who
stole his heart so many years ago.
There are many other sweet and
tender moments in this film, including George’s sidekick, a cute little
dog, a hilarious butler (played by James Cromwell), and the humor of
melodrama that was so common in silent films. Take a chance and give
this wonderful little movie your full attention. Don’t be like George,
resisting something new and different (like a black-and-white silent
French film), and deny yourself the pleasure of a great movie. I
promise, you won’t be disappointed!