TELLURIDE – Moviemaking is not an easy process. If it was there would obviously be significantly more good movies in theaters. A hundred years plus off filmmaking has taken the form to amazing heights, but ask a modern day director to create something memorable without all those fancy tools and visual effects and that’s when the real talent truly steps up. Impressively, that’s exactly what Michel Hazanavicius has done with his charming silent comedy “The Artist” which screened at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival today.
You read that right, “The Artist” is a traditional silent film featuring no spoken dialogue and just orchestral score for a soundtrack. That would be pretty unorthodox for a contemporary story, so Hazanavicius’ hero begins his journey at the height of silent films, way back in 1927. Jean Dujardin (who starred in Hazanavicius two “OSS-117” features) plays George Valentine, a Hollywood movie star who wows the ladies on and off the silver screen with his library of facial reactions. One night after another successful film premiere, Valentin has a chance encounter in front of the paparazzi with a struggling day player, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). A natural in front of the camera herself, Peppy’s mugging for the photos with Valentin gets the young lady in the papers (“Who is that girl?”) as our hero laughs off her 15 minutes of fame. Fate continues to draw the pair close, however,as Peppy soon finds herself selected as an extra on Valentin’s latest film. Much to the disdain of the movie’s director and studio head (a well cast John Goodman), Valentin and Constance find themselves so enamored with each other they can barely complete a simple dance scene together. Ain’t true love grand?
As the film progresses, Valentin’s prefect world begins to fall apart. His wife (a brief, but effective Penelope Ann Miller) leaves him, but his biggest mistake is laughing away a potential career in talkies which forces his longtime studio to show him the door. Refusing to believe audiences want to see films with talking actors, Valentine invests his own money in a silent picture which he also directs. The movie bombs and then, to make matters worse, he loses the rest of his fortune when the stock market crashes in Oct. 1929. Meanwhile, Peppy has become the new “it” girl for the talkies ushering in a new era of movie superstars. When the star-crossed duo finally cross paths again Valentin questions whether he can fashion a comeback even with her unwavering support. Still, like so many crowd-pleasers before it, the film ends on a decidedly energetic and upbeat note.
Shot entirely on location in Hollywood, Hazanavicius’ mix of French and American crew members have collaborated to create a black and white silent movie that shows few signs that it wasn’t shot during Hollywood’s golden age. This is an impressive accomplishment all around and will earn the picture a ton of fans from experienced and usually skeptical industry veterans.
As I noted earlier this week, Dardjin should find a lot of love in the best actor category as awards season progresses. While largely unknown to American audiences, the French star is so charismatic it’s hard to any other actor starring in the role. As for other awards season considerations, the film will also find itself in the running for cinematography, production design, costumes and original score honors.
Will it find a passionate enough fan base to merit a best picture nomination? It’s hard to imagine the film’s fans in the Academy not raising their voices in support.
Originally premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May, “The Artist” opens in limited release on Nov. 23.
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