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silence is golden [movie review :: the artist]

if you're new to this blog, or new to knowing me, let me make something clear: i am a huge silent film fan. i don't mean that i like silent films as a sort of curiosity, i mean that if i were to list my top ten films of all time, there would be several silent films on that list alongside their talking cousins. associating all silent film with the hysterical melodramas produced by hollywood is the equivalent of judging all modern film-making by the works of michael bey. great silent film-making is an art unto itself, very different from "talking pictures" and when it is done well, it approaches the sublime.

in that, my opinions align with those of the hero of "the actor" michel valentin [the adorable and dashing jean dujardin], an icon of the silent film, whose celebrity lifestyle is both metaphorically and, for the purposes of the film, literally, wordless. on the screen, dujardin clearly channels the rakish charisma of douglas fairbanks sr. and the screen idol looks of john barrymore in his heyday and the resemblance, in all senses, is astounding. it's almost impossible not to fall under the spell of his smile from the first moment we see him. and, of course, if the smile doesn't work, we almost immediately get to see his heart-melting interactions with his best friend, uggie, the jack russell terrier. when we meet him, he is on top of the world and we want him to stay that way. but that wouldn't make for much of a film.

within a few minutes of the film's clever opening, valentin comes face-to-face with stunning fan peppy miller [berenice bejo] and the chemistry between them fills the screen with a silent electricity. it's a perfect recreation of that moment we've all felt when first eye contact with someone makes our heart race, even when the conversation is fairly banal. we see the characters going through the motions of chit-chat, but what is truly evident is that rush of feeling, the mythical "love at first sight" that these two have obviously found.

of course, things are not as simple as they seem. valentin is married, both to a chilly, aristocratic blonde [penelope ann miller] and to his career. and so the silent fireworks between he and peppy are immediately as problematic as they are undeniable.

after their first encounter, she shows up as an extra on one of his films and we get to see the force of the giddy, juvenile, embarrassing, incredible puppy love between them. he helps her get her foothold in the film and peppy, who embodies all the young, bold confidence of the flapper era- to go along with the lithe figure and bobbed hair- determines to work her way up from there.

SO HOW DO THINGS GO FROM THERE? KEEP READING...


of course, as peppy works her way up from an uncredited extra to star billing, michel finds himself slipping from his lofty perch. talking films are establishing themselves as the wave of the future and, despite valentin's protests that what he does is an art, not simply parroting a script, the world is moving on without him.

take a moment to consider the fact that, at the time, actors were treated largely like livestock. rather than enjoying the independence they have today, actors were normally contracted to a specific studio either for a certain number of years or for a certain number of pictures. while they might earn extraordinary salaries for a certain period of time when they were at their peak, the power rested entirely with the studios. contracts were kept fairly short, so if an actor's popular appeal started to wane, they could easily be cut loose. they had no control over the films in which they appeared, the conditions under which they had to work or the image that they were given for the public. the company name "united artists" was not simply a convenient choice of terms- it was the name given to the company founded by a group who were fed up with the studio system and who struck out on their own [including the aforementioned douglas fairbanks sr.]. at that time, for an actor to strike out on his own, to pursue an artistic vision, was a rebellious, dangerous move.

but valentin does stand up for his art and strikes out on his own, only to see all of his advantages, the trappings of his success, stripped away from him. he sinks low, as low as can be, despite being tended to by his faithful chauffeur [james cromwell, who, may i say, bears an almost uncanny resemblance to my grandfather, which means that i pretty much always have to like him] and his even more faithful canine companion.

the story of art, love, loss and redemption is not especially original or complicated. it can't be complicated, because if it were, the audience would lose track of what was going on. but tales that are simple still have the power to connect to the deepest parts of us, the parts that still on some level believe in fairy tales and in the power of our frail hearts. to dismiss "the artist" as simplistic is to entirely miss the point. the power of removing language from the equation is that it allows the film to access those parts of us that our unvoiced and that it does with nothing short of brilliance.

even those who have given the film positive reviews have often given it a verbal pat on the head by calling it a pastiche, a sentimental love letter to the traditions of hollywood. and, indeed, there are very deliberate homages to some hollywood classics that fans of cinema will appreciate. but the most important thing that "the artist" does is remind us all of the power of that which is not expressed, of the parts of us that are not given voice, but which nonetheless form the basis of our character.

the jaded critics may smile and call call this a nice little film. those of us who get it will be content to allow ourselves to be swept up in the magic, to simply sit back and enjoy the silence.

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