Grade: A- (SEE IT)
I CAN THINK of plenty of reasons – five, in fact – that “The Artist” collected a total of ten Oscar nominations for February’s ceremony and why it’s a likely Best Picture winner. The only film, nomination-wise, from 2011 to outdo “The Artist” is Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” another nostalgic crowd-pleaser similarly interested in the advent of cinema and the rising tide of talkies in 1927. In a class all its own, however, Michel Hazanavicius’s silent black-and-white film is a valentine to vintage Hollywood and shines for these five, fine reasons:
- Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin as matinee idol George Valentin and Best Supporting Actress nominee Bérénice Bejo as starlet Peppy Miller. The two form a fast friendship early on in “The Artist” and moving in opposite directions, Valentin can’t make the leap from silent film to talkies whereas Peppy becomes the 1920’s version of Hollywood’s it-girl. It’s staggering to think that Dujardin and Bejo needn’t even speak to create chemistry as memorable as this. In one dazzling sequence, Valentin sees only her legs below a screen and begins to match the pep in Peppy’s step; in another, the two cross paths on a staircase right out of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), equally obsessed with megalomaniacal actors from a bygone era.
- Uggy the Dog! If Dujardin and Bejo aren’t already the year’s most attractive duo, there’s scene-stealer Uggy as the leading man’s loyal friend. It was a busy year for Uggy, who also appeared in “Water for Elephants.” He’s now ten years old and, according to owner Omar von Muller, retiring after the Oscar ceremony. Animal tricks are about as low-brow as it gets but when Uggy plays dead in “The Artist,” it’s a metaphor for his master’s demise. Plus “The Artist” transports us to the era when a pooch walking on his hind legs had audiences enthusing: That’s entertainment!
- The sudden sound in the dream scene. Give me any vociferous action movie from 2011 – yes, “The Green Hornet” or “I Am Number Four” – and the number one most startling moment on film last year is the sudden intrusion of sound into “The Artist.” I know that the cardinal sin of any creative writing class is to end a story with the ol’ it-was-only-a-dream line, but here, the eruption of a dog barking, a telephone ringing, and human laughter echoes the film’s exuberant heart.
- Everything’s a metaphor. In the hands of a lesser director, “The Artist” would run out of steam if the plotline weren’t so universal. But Hazanavicius gives us a movie-within-a-movie with Dujardin sinking fast in quicksand. Given that he’s stuck in the age of silent film in a city that would like to bury him, the metaphor is obvious enough. Isn’t the film itself a comment on the perils of resisting change? “I’m not a puppet!” Valentin declares, “I’m an artist!”
- Finally, a feast for film geeks. As Valentin’s driver Clifton, James Cromwell recalls the hired help, again, from Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” while the score by Ludovic Bource reverberates with echoes of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” composer Bernard Herrmann. There are traces, too, of “Citizen Kane.” Music is, of course, vital in a film without dialogue. Dartmouth professor James A. W. Heffernan once wrote “movies speak mainly to the eyes,” but “The Artist” speaks to the eyes, ears, and heart.