2011 has given movie lovers two films that deal with film history, and both have become mainstream names because of the awards season buzz they have generated. Hugo is director Martin Scorsese’s magical 3D story about a young orphan who finds his purpose in life while helping others find theirs in 1930s France. To me, it is also a love letter to film, especially the early silents.
The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius) is also an homage to classic film, but where Hugo functions as a period piece made with the latest in cinematic technology, The Artist is a black and white silent film in the style of the era it represents.
While I loved Hugo, I was utterly charmed by The Artist. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent star modeled after a Douglas Fairbanks-type. I thought of him almost as a cross between Don Draper from Mad Men and Don Lockwood from Singin’ In the Rain. He has the matinee-idol looks (and the ego that comes with it) but also a bit of easygoing charm.
It’s 1927, and the studios are busy churning out silents. Valentin picks out a dancer named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and helps her become the star actress she dreams of being. When the advent of sound turns Hollywood on its head, it is Miller who finds herself as the new face of the studio’s talking pictures, as Valentin becomes an old fashioned relic of a bygone era.
As Miller’s star climbs higher, Valentin finds himself out of work, depressed and lonely. His only companion is his loyal terrier, a dog that easily brings to mind canine stars of the past, like Asta from The Thin Man. Miller, however, refuses to let Valentine fade away, and helps him to break back into movies, just like he did for her years before.
I think anyone will enjoy this movie, but like Hugo, there are little treats for classic film lovers that others in the audience might miss. Hugo showed the magic of the silents through use of clips from classic films, like the famous scene in Safety Last! with Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock, Buster Keaton sitting on the train in The General and sections of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.
The Artist is interesting in its self-reflexivity: we are watching a film about people in Hollywood making silents and talkies themselves. The plot itself is a blend of A Star Is Born and Singin’ In the Rain. The penultimate sequence of the film is scored to Bernard Herrmann’s famous Vertigo score (which I thought was kind of an odd choice, but whatever). Whereas Hugo wants you to identify with its main characters and see the love of cinema through their eyes, The Artist tries to take you back in time to experience this kind of film firsthand.
Yes, it’s true that there is a difference between watching this and watching a silent film from the 1920s. In fact, The Artist isn’t entirely silent, it plays off the use of sound in two main sequences that I can remember. That being said, I was smitten. I’m personally not a huge silent film watcher, but there is something magical when you see a good one (like the first time I saw Metropolis). In some ways this film is a novelty, and maybe that’s where some of the attention is coming from, but it really is a lovely movie, and who knows, maybe it will get some people interested in these old black and white movies we love so much.