The Artist: A romantic comedy/drama on film the old fashioned way - silent and sweet.
I loved this film. Going to see a silent movie like “The Artist” has to be as revolutionary an experience today as going to a talkie must have been in 1929. Instead of wondering exactly what the actors were saying and how they sounded and what the tone of voice conveyed, the audience could finally HEAR it all.
In 2012, going to see “The Artist” is a totally retro experience. It took me the first part of the one hour and forty minute film to get the hang of it. I was taken in by watching the actors emote, waiting for the captions to appear, and even tried to read lips to see how close my interpretation got to the caption that might have rolled out a few seconds later.
Or not. Some sequences didn't have captions because the film asked me to interpret, to fill in the blanks, as if saying, hey this is pretty obvious, we don't need to feed you captions for this, buddy, you got two eyes, you can figure it out yourself.
Lots of the scenes involved only two characters. The interplay of body language, facial expressions were like a code that movie goers at the time were used to, a pantomime script that conveyed feelings, words, intentions.
The faces of the two stars, Jean Dujardin as veteran silent screen star George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as emerging star of talkies Pepper Miller, are perfect landscapes for the film, expressive and appealing. The camera loves them and they love it back. They have the old time knack of arching an eyebrow, pursing the lip, speaking with their eyes, and unleashing smashingly fabulous, playful smiles. And they're beautiful.
In crowd scenes, it was fun watching the carefully orchestrated expressions of every person, fascinating faces and outfits, all of them carefully chosen even if there were a hundred of them, sort of a playful Hieronymus Bosch. They were an animated mosaic that functioned like a silent Greek chorus.
The silence in the theater was a bit unnerving as the first scenes began to roll. I breathed a sigh of relief when the film score, the music that practically shouted the kind of emotion the actors were feeling, joy, sadness, fear, sympathy, just in case you missed the droop in their shoulders or lightness in their gait or anger in their eyes, kicked in.
I was busy experiencing the film in an entirely different way. It was cool that the director figured out I would know what was going on in some scenes without him having to add the captions. Which, by the way, were usually in big white letters on the black background and not too many words in any one caption.
Oh, by the way, did I say the whole film is in black and white? Totally retro. The movie making scenes embedded in the story depict the period at the beginning of the 1930s when silent films and their stars were about to be eclipsed by movies that had their own music embedded in them and later the actors’ voices. Miracle! They talked! And you could hear them!
In an odd way, watching a silent film is an interactive experience. I had to integrate the music and captions with the arc of the story. My eyes began to flit over the details of every scene looking for clues about the narrative and my ears picked up the signals of the music which, like today, announce tension, suspense, mystery.
Most of the scenes were set sparely so that every detail in them propelled the story. The actor's fabulous period clothing and the furnishings weren't competing with the actor's voices. One of priceless scenes you'd miss if you weren't scanning the frame - the washed up actor Valentin walks disconsolately down a deserted city street – in the background, a distant theater marquee reads "The Lonely Star."
One of the film's unforgettably poignant sequences shows star-struck Pepper Miller, still an unknown actress, sneaking into Valentin's dressing room and putting her arm through the sleeve of his jacket to produce a gloriously touching pantomime of him embracing her (see the trailer link).
“The Artist” has a formula that has thrived since film was celluloid: Fame, Fall, Redemption. It is lovingly produced and a ton of fun to watch.