The Artist is my pick for 2012 Best Picture Oscar. It is exquisitely crafted, filled with heart, and the epitome of “show don’t tell.” It is a film about the end of the silent era in motion pictures and is silent itself and filmed in black and white to boot.
Alfred Hitchcock felt that the silent era ended too soon. He believed that movies would have been richer overall if images were allowed to “speak” a little longer without the distraction of sound– that there was much more to learn about creating a visual vocabulary from the silent era before sound usurped this method of filmmaking.
Hitchcock never did completely trust sound in his own work and believed the audience should be able to follow the story if somehow the sound went out. I wonder how many filmmaker today could make a film “speak” mostly through image and action. Clearly, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius is one of the rare filmmaker-artists whose pictures are worth a thousand words.
Hazanavicius’ film, The Artist, is about George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) a silent movie star, part swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks and part romantic swoon-master Rudolph Valentino. He is at the top of his game– the undisputed King of Hollywood.
George is a Power of Idealism character, clearly extraordinary in every way. We meet him at the end of his era, although he doesn’t know that or accept it until the end of the film. Just as George is about to become an anachronism he accidentally meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at a big premiere. He catches her as she stumbles/is pushed out of the crowd and into his arms. A photographer captures the moment on film and the embrace makes the tabloids. On the strength of that image, she manages to get a job as an extra in George’s next film.
Ty Burr writing in The Boston Globe describes what happens next:
There’s a wonderful sequence early on in which Valentin and Peppy film four takes of a scene where they have to waltz across a crowded dance floor, the movie star and the extra falling harder for each other with each cut. Without color and sound, their emotions are so close you can almost take them in your hands, and that’s what sometimes seems to have gone missing from movies – the intimacy of two people filmed without artifice.
Later there is another lovely scene in which Peppy drapes herself in George’s tuxedo coat, hanging on a coat rack, in such a way that it looks like he holds her in an intimate embrace. It is a jewel of a scene twinkling with graceful physical comedy and bright with love and longing.
George, unfortunately, is on the way down just as Peppy is on the way up. His studio, Kinograph, run by Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is scrapping George’s next silent film in favor of a slate filled only with talking pictures. George doesn’t believe sound is here to stay and finances his next adventure film himself. Of course it’s a flop. The public has moved on and so has Peppy. She opens the same day in her first big blockbuster.
George spirals downward. He loses everything except Peppy’s continuing love and admiration. Bill Goodykoontz writing in The Arizona Republic sums up the film’s appeal perfectly:
There are nods to more silent movies and stars than you’ll care to tally. That’s fun, as far as it goes, but what’s important is that Hazanvicius and Dujardin create characters and situations that feel original — situations that, despite the broadly played bits familiar to silent-film fans, have the same heart found in the movies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. (LH: The movie displays exactly the kind of heart, gentleness, and generosity of spirit sadly lacking in most movies today.)
Credit Dujardin (playing George) for a lot of that. His grace and carriage allow him to float through the dance scenes, he’s funny in the comic bits, yet he brings enough weight to the down-and-out segments to break your heart. Bejo (playing Peppy), too, is outstanding as the star who never forgets where she came from — or who inspired her.
Peppy is desperate to help George and finally hits on something he can do without speaking– dance. He takes a leap of faith and accepts a smaller more ordinary role in her film. The two dance off into the sunset.
One of the most amazing aspects of the film is how well it captures the tone, style and even movement of the times. The actor’s facial expressions and physicalization is absolutely authentic to the era. (Watch any film from the 20’s or 30 to see for your self.) Boardwalk Empire, set in the same era, as good as it is in many respects, is clearly modern actors playing a period piece. The actors in The Artist fully and completely inhabit the era with every ounce of their being. That is a stunning achievement. America was a different place in the silent era and we are transported back with ease, grace, style, charm, and heart.
The Artist truly is the Best Picture of 2012.