The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011): France / Belgium

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed at Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara, CA.

  It’s 1927 and the year of the talkies; a huge event in Hollywood where careers precariously depend on one’s voice.  Some film stars are able to make this transition easily while others fade into obscurity.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is The Artist, a popular silent film star with the charm of Douglas Fairbanks and the elegance of Rudolph Valentino, and his favorite sidekick is a white and brown Jack Russell Terrier (Uggie).

Producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), cautions George of the encroaching talkie dilemma, but he quickly dismisses it.  On his current film set George connects with a starlet named PeppyMiller (Berenice Bejo), but faithfully returns home to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), his wife of many years.

Soon talkies become predominant and Peppy’s career rises, as George’s popularity plummets.  As the studio announces the end of production for silents, George decides to invest his own money into another production, but the numbers don’t lie and it’s a dismal failure.

After the stock market crashes the studio abandons him, as well as his loyal fans and wife Doris; George quickly turns to drink when left with only his personal valet Clifton (James Cromwell) and his clever little dog.

Emotionally moving, and at times humorous, The Artist is (hands down) the best film I’ve seen of 2011.  It is written with the sweet sentimentality of a Chaplin film, with similar style and episodic timing , where the mood transitions easily from farce to affliction.

Superbly written by Hazanavicius, who shot the monochromatic film entirely as a silent, save for a brief sequence with diegetic sound, he successfully relies on titles cards, wipes, iris-in, iris-out and fades to progress the story.

Jean Dujardin mimes perfectly through his role as George, with just enough physical gesture to capture the heart of a silent, without looking silly.  And while all of the characters are well-cast, dog Uggie is the scene stealer throughout.  He plays dead (or actually being shot), saves his master, and hides his face, with a quality of acting I’ve not seen since Asta in The Thin Man films.

There is a bit of controversy about this film regarding the use of a portion of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo.  It concerns an ad taken out in Variety, supposedly by Kim Novak, the original star of the film.  The ad claims foul play on the part of The Artist filmmakers for using Herrmann’s piece to quantify their film.

Vertigo is one of my favorite films of Hitchcock, partly due to Herrmann’s fantastic score.  I assumed the very distinctive portion through Scotty’s dream sequence was chosen, however the actual piece was more subtle and played for several seconds, before I realized it was the subject that the ad was up in arms about – it’s much ado about nothing!  It is quite obvious that this portion of the score pays homage to Hitchcock and most likely Herrmann, in much the same way that Guy Ritchie uses the theme song from Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), though less effectively, in Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows (2011).

The Artist gets my vote for Best Film, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor to Uggie, for 2011.


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