Even after Dorothy left her sepia-washed Kansas for the bright, Technicolor landscapes of Oz, black-and-white cinema never truly disappeared.
To this day, filmmakers remove color to capture the essence of an era (“Ed Wood,” “Good Night and Good Luck”) or circumvent budget restrictions (“Pi,” “Following”). It is one of the many tools for creating variety in cinematic storytelling.
Silent films, though? Once “The Jazz Singer,” Hollywood’s first sound project, came out in 1927, speech quickly supplanted slapstick and pantomime as film’s main form of communication. After the ‘30s, you would be hard pressed to find silent films outside the avant-garde and independent scene.
This all makes “The Artist” all the more peculiar. A black-and-white film released in 2011? And it is one of this year’s best movies? Well, yeah.
Here is a sleek time capsule of a film, catapulting audiences to the 1920s when the art form was new and growing. It refuses to sink down to self-referential nudges or turn its silent format into a gimmick. I suspect director and writer Michel Hazanavicius didn’t conceive “The Artist” with the intention of “reviving” silent cinema. He came up with a great story and realized it would be best told without dialogue, i.e. using only bodies and music.
The story is this: silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has reached the peak of his success in 1927. Like many big pantomime actors at the time, he tends to play extravagant, charismatic heroes: Zorro, musketeers, explorers and a fashionably dressed James Bond figure. A smart, dynamic canine accompanies him in most roles, and together they captivate audiences throughout Los Angeles.
At Valentin’s latest film premier, Peppy (Bérénice Bejo) a young female fan, accidentally stumbles onto the red carpet and ends up posing for pictures with her idol.
The next day, her face has appeared with Valentin’s all over the newspapers, to the dismay of Valentin’s neglected wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and his mercurial studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman). In a few days, Peppy has used her newfound fame to break into the film industry, landing a bit part dancing with Valentin. Chemistry ignites immediately between them, and romance seems inevitable.
Remember when I said “The Jazz Singer” came out? Now guess what radical change hits the movie industry, and who benefits most from it. Which one suffers?
The rest of the film plays out along conventional lines: a broken, prideful man falls from power, unable to acknowledge how many people love and care for him. That’s “King Lear” in a nutshell. But though you have seen the melodrama before, you have never seen it handled so gracefully and with such visual showmanship.
The momentum never disappears, even when Valentin falls upon his darkest hour. The characters are so fully realized and endearing that their time-tested struggles gain new relevance. The film’s climax had audiences gasping both times I saw it.
Of the film’s main cast, you will probably recognize Goodman, perhaps James Cromwell as Valentin’s loyal valet and Martin McDowell in a bit part, but it is the fresh faces that steal the show, sealing “The Artist” as a classic for the new century.
Dujardin and Bejo are actors from another era, speaking with open, expressive faces and emotive gestures. They reveal more with movement than dialogue would ever allow them.
The best scenes are reserved for their interplay, such as when Peppy embraces Valentin’s tailcoat like an actual person, or when the two of them dance together on opposite sides of a projection screen.
I understand there is a fear of early cinema. Today’s generation is raised on voices, sound effects and the noises of the real world. People panic when a movie expects them to follow the story without characters sharing a single world. To all of them I say, relax.
“The Artist” appeals, of course, to fans of silent cinema and captures all the style’s little details: the intertitles with felt backgrounds, the Gershwin-flavored soundtrack (composed with authenticity by Ludovic Bource), and shout-outs to classics as diverse as “Citizen Kane” and “Singing in the Rain.”
But “The Artist” works for all audiences. It is not one giant inside-joke or a novelty time. The love it has for its characters and their world is infectious and a hazard to all self-professed cynics. You will have trouble leaving the theatre without a big, goofy grin.
“The Artist” is not playing in Galesburg or anywhere in the vicinity, but if you have the means to make the trip to Peoria or Chicago, this is a must-see. Will it revive silent cinema? Probably not. But it is definitely the wisest use of the format in half a century.