‘The Artist’ is an Unexpected Delight

If it’s true that up to 80% of communication is nonverbal, then the new silent movie “The Artist” uses all of that 80% to make up for its lack of dialog. Twinkles in the eyes, hunches of the shoulder, effervescent gestures and slight narrowing of the lips tell us almost all we need to know about the silent movie star George Valentin and his young, beautiful rival Peppy Miller. It should not be a surprise, then, that the film is so enjoyable. As a novel experience, it works very well, but as a story of love, art, and loss, it works as well as or better than its more conventional competition.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) reigns the box office in the late 1920s, the king of the silver screen. He lives with his wife and chauffer in a large mansion, eats at the best restaurants, beloved by all. A beautiful young girl named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) starts out on the hopeful road to stardom, dancing as an extra in his movie. When they meet, each exerience a strong attraction. She emits a radiant smile and winning spark, even without dialog.

Sadly, George’s career is the one in trouble. As talkies become the vogue, George becomes yesterday’s news. His parts dry up even as Peppy’s star rises.

Filmed beautifully in black and white, the film looks both modern and old fashioned at the same time. The quality of the black and white is thoroughly modern, the lighting beautiful. Like an old movie from before sound, the characters talk but we can’t hear them. Instead, we hear a beautiful and emotive score that sets the tone and conveys information in itself. Director Michel Hazanavicius plays with this convention, brialliantly, in a dream sequence in which George, and through him the audience, hears a glass clinking and a dog barking for the first time.

It feels odd to not hear the ambient noises and voices from the screen, the passing car and the joking comment. Even odder, however, is how clearly the characters and action come through without it. We easily know who these people are, from the vain diva played by Missi Pyle to the blustering studio executive played by John Goodman.

Words, it turns out, just aren’t as important as we thought.

Humor comes through loud and clear as well. So does personality. By the end of the first few scenes, we know Georges for a genial and fun-loving man, if a bit of a ham, and Peppy as a sparkling beauty with a sincere heart. The costumes and set design are fantastic, full of Art Deco beauty. Many shots are crafted as a homage to the architecture and sophistication of Depression Era Los Angeles.

It all adds up to a critically acclaimed movie that is actually enjoyable.

Part of the enjoyment stems from an old-fashioned story free of cynicism. Both Georges and Peppy have good hearts and clean motives. There’s no “All About Eve” here. Even George’s inconvenient marriage is treated with respect and compassion.

Not to say that the film is flawless. After about an hour, the silent film experience starts to wear thin. Perhaps this is because the tone of the film changes from happy-go-lucky to tragic. Georges, having lost his position at the top of the billboard, becomes increasingly despondent. As in the other critical darling getting Oscar buzz, “Hugo,” the silent movie maker can think of no reason to live if his art, career, and glory no longer fill his days. While art and vocation are important and bring a lot of fullfillment to life, it’s all a bit much.

Man up and find something else to live for, Mr Old-Tme Movie Guy.

Critics and Hollywood figures love movies, so they have gushed over the recent crop of Hollywood-centric films like “Hugo,” “The Artist,” “My Week With Marylin” and the older “Rango.” I disagree with my colleagues. These are not the best movies of the year, just the most movie-focused films of the year. Like the others, “The Artist” is a very good film and an excellent experience, but not superlative.

Turns out, there’s more to the world than making art.

“The Artist” currently rides the momentum to win the Best Picture at the Oscars. That alone is reason enough to see it. However, unlike some notable Oscar winners, this critical darling won’t leave you depressed and wishing you had your $11.50 back in your pocket.

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