January 30, 2012 by Zack
Homages are always a tricky thing to pull off. You want to celebrate what you’re paying homage to, but you also want to make something your own as well. Sometimes it works well, like in the case of Woody Allen’s “Everyone Always Says I Love You” which of course was an homage to musicals, and was itself a musical. Examples where it doesn’t work, in my opinion, would be J. J. Abrams’ mindless “Super 8” which attempts to capture Spielberg at his best and wound up just capturing his own self indulgence.
In Michel Hazanavicius’s new film “The Artist”, he pays homage to the silent film era. This certainly is a case where the homage works with flying colors (pardon the expression). The film starts in 1927 and focuses on a successful silent film era star named George Valentin (played wonderfully by Jean Dujardin), who has just premiered his latest success when one of his admirers has a chance encounter with him at the premiere. An eye catching beauty, Peppy Miller (played equally wonderfully by Berenice Bejo) winds up bumping into him while he’s getting publicity photos taken. To enhance the moment, he leans in and gives her a kiss, igniting a storm of curiosity–“Who’s that Girl?”
Peppy winds up auditioning for a bit part in an upcoming film with Valentin as a dancer, and winds up becoming a star herself. Valentin’s life begins to come apart as the years go by, however, with a wife that he doesn’t love, nor does she love him (played by Penelope Ann Miller) kicks him out after his career’s fallen apart due to the introduction of “talkies” and the death of silent cinema. Determined to remain a silent actor, Valentin makes his own film which is a bomb; meanwhile, Peppy’s starring in a film that becomes a huge hit. Valentin fires his long time butler (played by James Cromwell) after suffering not only his film career collapse, but also the stock market crash of 1929, and lives by himself with his cute little dog in an apartment. One night, in a fit of anger after watching reels of his glory days, he sets fire to them and the whole apartment catches fire.
He’s rescued in a Lassie-like moment by his dog, and is taken care of by Peppy to somewhat his dismay. He also sees that she’s collected all of his possessions that he had to put up for auction to keep himself afloat financially. He is the ultimate “tormented” artist and hits rock bottom pretty hard when he realizes he has nothing left to give the world of cinema. But Peppy has a few ideas…
The film’s plot is simple, and the delivery is straight forward. But it’s done with such grace, such a light touch, that it’s instantly charming and very amusing. It takes a few minutes to perfectly set yourself in accordance to “silent film” mode; but once you’re there, you hardly notice that it’s a silent film at all and enjoy it as a film itself. That’s really the key to why this film is so good. As an homage, it does everything right. The expressions of the actors are big and over the top, and Dujardin has an instant appeal and a throwback look to him that it’s almost as if they plucked him from the silent era and plopped him in. The same could be said about his co-star, Bejo, who with one flap of her eyebrows has you melting in your seat.
Now, I thought to myself, if this were a regular “talkie” film, would it have been as good? Sure, it would’ve had all the elements to make it good. It would have been satisfying, I think. But something big would be missing. And the fact that it is silent is what gives it such power. We are nearly a century removed from that era. That would be like giving someone an Apple IIe computer and say, “Here, use this.” We’re so used to talking in films, and explosions and special effects–to strip that all away, except for a musical track (that itself goes silent a few times for effect in the film), could have been a huge miscalculation. But Hazanavicius has such a love for that era, you can tell, and his passion shines through. The film never drags, although the third act does begin to feel a bit familiar and a tad repetitive; by the time you’re aware of that, however, it ends, and leaves you with a big smile on your face.
This isn’t just a celebration of silent film; it’s a celebration of film in general. Its simple message of staying true to yourself as an artist and things will pay off echoes warmly rather than flatly; and its sincerity and earnest performances save it from being corny or hokey.
It’s also a treat to see names like John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell (although he’s only in a bit role) bring something to the “silent era” as well, as their faces are so recognizable–it was interesting to see them, and not really hear them. In fact, there are only 2 moments in the whole film in which you can hear sound. Both scenes work extremely well, I thought, and are not at all distracting. The music accompaniment is a great companion as well. In fact, the whole film is a piece of music, and every note is pitch perfect.