08 February 2012

With Pleasure

In the 1920s, Charlie Chaplin was the world's most famous man.  His films had become so universally popular -- and made so many people rich -- that he was able to establish his own film studio and control every aspect of production.   When "talkies" revolutionized the industry in 1927, Chaplin scoffed and continued to make silent films (some of the greatest work in film history) until 1940.  He had the clout and the cash to go against the tide of progress.   Yet, many stars who seemed invincible during the silent film era suddenly found themselves irrelevant.  The Artist tells the story of such a star.

George Valentin is said silent movie star living the life of dreams.  He's rich, popular, handsome, and can seemingly do no wrong.  At the premiere of his latest film, he inadvertently bumps into Peppy Miller, an adoring fan, and through a series of wildly opportune events (archetypal of silent films), Miller lands a minor role in Valentin's next picture, leading to her rapid ascent in the movie business.

French director Michel Hazanavicius' strongest move was casting Jean Dujardin (Valentin) and Bérénice Bejo (Miller) as the stars of his 21st century silent film.  Dujardin, with his million dollar smile, and Bejo, with her lovely doe eyes, breezily seduce the audience much like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and company seduced the masses almost a century ago.

By their very essence, silent films must convey action in the broadest means possible.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin "the only genius to come out of the movie industry..." because Chaplin was a master at communicating powerful emotions with nothing but a small top-hat, baggy pants, and crooked cane.  There is no place for subtly or abstraction in silent film;  overt symbolism is wielded like a sledgehammer.  Invariably, this results in melodrama but it also affects the viewer on much more base level.  When we see Miller and Valentin run into each other at studio headquarters, he going down stairs whilst she goes up, the full magnitude of what is about to happen in their lives is obvious and undeniably heartbreaking.

Surely, The Artist is quite predictable (somewhat by design) and simple, but it's also deliciously charming.  In a time when louder is better and bigger isn't big enough, it's refreshing to indulge oneself in a contemporary film that honors the birth of the industry while losing yourself in the silkiness of early celluloid.

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