Usually you can count on a movie hitting the DVD rack about thirty days after it disappears from theaters. There are exceptions to the rule, and the 2012 Best Picture The Artist took what seemed like forever before it was released and Netflix could send it to me. Time to get out the popcorn, because Best Picture films rarely disappoint.
Yes it is strange in 2012 for any film, let alone a Best Picture movie, to be released as a silent film, in black and white and with a classic 1:1.33 height to width ratio. In fact the movie is not entirely silent, as there is a score that goes along with it, which was typical of silent movies (and was usually performed by a pianist in the theater). And there are a couple of key scenes in the movie where sound is added as well. In some ways the film demonstrates that it is a product of the 21st century and not the 1920s. For one thing, the black and white film stock is much better today than what was available back then.
The movie’s plot is pretty simple and has been modeled in other films (Singin’ in the Rain comes to mind). A famous silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who also won Best Actor for this role) cannot make the transition from silent movies to “talkies” as they were called. His career abruptly ends while the career of a young lady, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), abruptly takes off. George and Peppy intersect at a red carpet event and their chance encounter gets into the tabloids. This is something of a problem as George is married to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). Their chance encounter may have been Peppy’s way of trying to insert her into showbiz, and it does help land her a part as an extra in George’s current film. On the set and in front of the camera they click but the dominoes are already falling for George. The producer behind Kinograph Studios, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) sees the future and it includes movies with sounds. George knows he cannot make the transition, but why?
The film moves rather predictably forward; so do not expect too many surprises. However, do expect the movie to be charming as well as a faithful homage to the end of the silent film era. Director Michel Hazanavicius, who won Best Director for the film, does a terrific job of capturing an era in meticulously correct detail, and both Dujardin and Bejo bring us interesting characters, with Bejo doing the better job. Period pieces are notoriously hard to render correctly on film, but Hazanavicius manages to pull it off, and does so with both style and artistry. Stuck in my head is a scene on a staircase in a Hollywood studio where George and Peppy intersect, the people running up and down the multilevel staircase, which has a silent rhythm all its own. There are lots of moments like this: moments that are endearing and schmaltzy and visually interesting even without the actors.
If there were a category for best acting by a dog in a motion picture, it would surely go to Uggie as Jack, George’s dog trained to obey almost reflexively and in some scenes that seems to be channeling Lassie. Jack is one smart dog, that’s for sure and his heart, like Peppy’s, is made of gold. So is Clifton’s (James Cromwell), George’s chauffeur, who is more like a devoted older brother than a servant.
The result is an endearing but simple story that is unexpectedly clever at points (I am thinking in particular about the scene of Peppy in George’s dressing room) and that also manages to run lots of themes together successfully including loss, romance, true love and (literally) dogged loyalty. It almost makes you want to resurrect the silent film era. In moving to “talkies” and now 3D and surround-sound movies we have also lost much of the art of conveying meaning without speaking. You will follow this movie easily enough, even without the limited subtitles and you should expect to feel charmed when it is all done.
Despite its strengths, I am not sure if it quite warranted Best Picture. Hugo was also nominated, also dealt with the era of silent films, and is arguably this film’s equal, if not its better. I was blown away by The Help. Had I had the privilege of casting a vote, The Help would have received my vote. All three films are excellently done period pieces, so equally excellent that maybe The Artist won by very small margins.
The Artist does get this vote from me: 3.4 out of 4-points.