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Christopher Kelly, McClatchy Newspapers, Published February 02 2012

Review: The silent ‘Artist’ might not be for average movie-goer

‘The Artist’

Theater: West Acres 14

Rating: PG for some adult situations

Time: 100 minutes

3.5 out of four stars


Michel Hazanavicius’ black-and-white, mostly silent comedy “The Artist” is a gorgeously made curiosity – a film that functions as a testament to its own obsession with other movies.

Hazanavicius has lovingly recreated the look, feel and rhythms of silent movies, from the 1.33:1 aspect ratio that renders the image a shimmering square on a modern-day rectangular screen, to the artfully designed intertitles that communicate what little dialogue there is.

He’s also conjured up a clever meta-story, with shades of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “A Star is Born,” about a silent film star clinging to the past as Hollywood eagerly embraces the future.

Yet even if the film – which won a Golden Globe as the best comedy/musical and is forecasted as a front-runner for the best picture Oscar – sometimes threatens to turn into a postmodern-hall-of-mirrors, it displays so much visual imagination, and Hazanavicius and his lead actors are so goofily zealous, that the effect is genuinely transporting. For 100 blessedly low-key minutes, you get to leave the noise and rat-a-tat visual chaos of contemporary moviemaking far behind.

As the film opens, in 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a winking narcissist, standing backstage as his latest silent opus premieres to rapturous applause.

With his pencil mustache and slicked back hair, he is meant to evoke any number of silent icons, like Rudolph Valentino (note the similarity of the last name) and John Gilbert. But even in the 1920s, the world is far more interested in celebrity than art. The next morning the trades are filled not with gushing reviews, but photographs of George’s accidental run-in, upon leaving the theater, with a would-be actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo).

The fading star, the rising ingenue and the love that threatens to be extinguished by pride and ego – the story of “The Artist” is as old as, well, silent movies.

In short order, George is told by his producer (John Goodman) that the talkies are coming, a technology the star adamantly resists. Peppy, meanwhile, lands a gig as an extra, and then a bit player, eventually working her way up to a contract as a star player at the studio. After George’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller) leaves him, the actor sinks into a pit of bankruptcy and despair, with only his loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) and Jack Russell terrier (Uggy, who steals even the scenes he isn’t in) for companionship.

For the most part, “The Artist” succeeds in both winking at the audience and engaging us in the melodrama. Much credit for that goes to Dujardin and Bejo, who display such casual mastery of the silent movie acting vernacular – the just-this-side-of-mugging facial expressions, the broad physical gestures – that you take them completely seriously and invest in them as real people.

And Hazanavicius is a wonderfully clever showman, who keeps finding ways to inhabit both the past and the present simultaneously – a dream sequence, for instance, in which George keeps hearing ambient sound, the stomping of feet or the laughter of women, but can’t make any noise himself when he opens his mouth and attempts to scream.

If “The Artist” never quite rises to the level of greatness, it’s perhaps because Hazanavicius’ approach is fundamentally self-conscious; he may love silent movies, but “The Artist,” by conceit, holds them at an arm’s remove. The greatest silents, whether tragedies like F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927) or comedies like Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928) still have a tremendous, almost primal emotional impact – they get us right in the gut. “The Artist,” on the other hand, is more clever than moving, more beguiling than substantive. When George’s dog goes racing to save him from a burning house, you laugh at the wit and speed of the sequence – but you also know it’s a pastiche of silent movie conventions.

Lovely and charming as “The Artist” is, then, it finally comes off as a tad precious – a movie about movies about movies; a true blast for film buffs that may leave everyone else scratching their heads.