The recently released movie, The Artist, written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, is as extraordinary as James Cameron’s Avatar, although it comes from the opposite direction.
Far from embracing cutting-edge cinematic techniques, it’s a wonderful throwback—a black and white silent movie (except for its wonderful soundtrack) that combines the look and spirit of the movies of a bygone era with modern wit and romance. In sum, it’s simultaneously a love note to the movies and a poignant movie love story.
It’s about an established Hollywood star in the late 1920s, a successful silent movie star confronting technological change: the arrival of the age of sound. When he fails to embrace change (and the 1929 economy collapses), his career plummets. One of his young female admirers, an aspiring dancer and actress, capitalizes on the changes in filmmaking, causing her career to skyrocket.
On another level, the film is a love story between these two incandescent personalities—a love story that, while some may complain has its melodramatic moments, is never quite predictable. Consequently, there’s dramatic suspense that’s sustained until the surprise ending. More fundamentally, the story is about the inspirational and redemptive powers of love itself.
The absence of sound highlights the emotional power of facial expressions and body language—particularly as performed by French actor Jean Dujardin (he’s been described as having the face of Clark Gable and smile of Gene Kelly) and the striking Argentine/French actress, Bérénice Bejo (the wife of the director). The black and white cinematography of Frenchman Guillaume Schiffman is stunning. Besides these French film veterans, American John Goodman is fabulous as a tough-minded Hollywood studio head. Otherwise, a predominately American crew produced the film at historic locations in Los Angeles.
Director Hazanavicius said, “A silent film is a very special experience. It’s not intellectual, it’s emotional. You take it in the way you take in music. There are times when language reduces communication, when you feel you are losing something when you’re talking.”
The movie reminds contemporary audiences of the expressive power of an earlier art form. And the buzz among cinema buffs suggests it’s a solid Oscar contender!