Despite lots of acclaims and awards it has recently garnered throughout the Oscar season of this year at present, I have a feeling that “The Artist” may not get a wide release in South Korean theaters in the next month. Our audiences may have some interest because it is currently Oscar-nominated for ten categories including Best Picture, but they may turn away from it once they learn that it is a silent film, which is usually regarded as dated and old-fashioned.
But I have a sincere wish that they will give it a shot, because the movie is not just a mere homage to the films of the past. The people who made this movie know not only how the silent films during the 1920s look, but also how easily the great silent movies from that era can grip our attention and touch our heart. While you can appreciate its style, you can also care about the story and the characters, and you will be touched by the genuine emotions behind its exemplary technical achievements.
The story is a familiar old-fashioned show business melodrama we have encountered countless time in other films including “The Star is Born”(1954) – and it has a good background for telling the fall of its hero and the rise of its heroine simultaneously. It is late 1920s, and Geroge Valentin(Jean Dujardin) is a quintessential silent film star gleefully enjoying his status at the top. In the opening scene, his latest adventure movie is again received well by the audiences, and he gladly appears in front of the applauding audiences with his usual charming smile at the end of its premiere.
When he comes out of the theater, he accidently comes across a young woman named Peppy Miller(Bérénice Bejo), who is one of his fans as well as an aspiring actress. Their brief encounter luckily helps her career thanks to the reporters surrounding them, so she comes to work in the movie studio where Valentine is one of its major starts. Of course, they meet again later at the movie set, and they soon discover their mutual feelings from each other. As I said, this is a silent film, so they do not talk, but Dujardin and Bejo have nice chemistry together; the scene where Valentin gives Miller one tiny but crucial thing she needs to be a star actress is one of the lovely moments in the film.
However, their small relationship is interrupted by the sudden progress in their industry. The talkie is introduced, so the new era is about to begin, and Valentin experiences the same decline which many of the silent film actors did during that transition phase. As reflected in “Singin’ in the Rain”(1952), now they must talk in front of the camera, or they will perish into the oblivion. Refusing the talkie, Valentin sees his fame and popularity quickly crashing with the gradual disappearance of silent films. In contrast, Miller is on the rise to her stardom with her talkie films.
The director/writer Michel Hazanavicius made a loving tribute to the silent films of that era he depicts. The screen ratio is 1.33:1 instead of the wide screen ratio we are accustomed to. Its cinematography, production design and costumes are so faithful to the looks and atmospheres it tries to reproduce that you can mistake it for some restored classic film produced during that era. Except the one nightmare scene featuring sound effects and another crucial scene, the soundtrack is mostly covered by the gorgeous score by Ludovic Bource, which is very important in setting the moods and feelings as the scores for the silent films were during that time. There have been some talks about whether it was appropriate to use a part of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Vertigo” during the melodramatic climax sequence in the film, but, as far as I can see, I do not see any problem with that; they use Herrmann’s music in a respectful way along with the swelling emotions to justify their choice. There is a pretty good chance that Bource will win Best Score Oscar, and, if he does, he deserves the award.
The actors are convincing as the characters living in the world of silent films with the right kind of mannerisms in their performances. Jean Dujardin has received several awards including the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in the last year for his performance, and he is also nominated for Best Actor Oscar as predicted. In two funny spy parody films directed by Hazanavicius(“OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies”(2006) and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio”(2009)), Dujardin was hilarious as a bumbling(and incorrigibly insensitive) spy while channeling the dashing image of Sean Connery, and now he is channeling the silent film stars like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. As a matter of fact, he could have been a good silent film star; his wonderful work is both delightful and poignant, and the range of emotions – confidence, affection, desperation, rage, and many others – he conveys through his expressive face without any dialogue while swinging through his dramatic character arc is a marvel to behold.
His co-performers are also fun and joy to watch. At his opposite, Bérénice Bejo is marvelous with the quality of the classic movie actress, and their interactions through their faces on the screen remind me why silent films still remain emotionally accessible and effective even when their era ended a long time ago. James Cromwell is reliable as Valentin’s ever-faithful chauffeur, and John Goodman is a nice movie studio boss who willingly follows the change of the trend while feeling sorry about his star. And there is a scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier named Uggy, who plays Valentin’s royal dog. Along with another memorable Jack Russell terrier in “Beginners”(2010), Uggy deserves the award for the best dog performance of 2011.
People around me usually underestimate the power of silent films. I have watched many silent films through DVDs, and I found many of them quite powerful. They do not talk, but they somehow tell me their stories in their own way, and I marvel again and again about how the great silent films work on the emotional level. I fondly remember the moment when I watched “Man with a Movie Camera”(1929) while enthralled by the frantic images and the electrifying performance of Alloy Orchestra at 2010 Ebertfest, Not so long after that, I watched a more restored version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”(1927) in the Jeonju International Film Festival with others, and we were all quietly and completely immersed in that great film during more than 2 hours.
“The Artist” may not be as great or powerful or ambitious as these masterpieces I mentioned above, but it is a small precious germ which is also one of the most charming films in 2011. This is basically exercise in style, but it is a tremendous work with lots of things to be appreciated, and it also has lots of hearts to be felt through its sincere story which is sad but ultimately optimistic. The change is inevitable, but there is always a way to move on(Since this film is a comedy, so this is not a spoiler, folks). I have no idea how the movie will approach to South Korean audiences, but I know one thing for sure; now or then, the silent movies know no language boundary.