Film festivals are all about celebrating the love of film, be it documentaries, foreign dramas, genre fare or what-have-you. But nowhere in this year’s offerings at the Philadelphia Film Festival is there a film that uniquely encapsulates that love as The Artist does.
It is the golden age of silent cinema and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of its greatest stars. But Valentin’s world is about to change with the coming of the talkies. Like many of his acting collegues, Valentin soon finds his career in rapid decline. But as his star fades, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo)’s grows brighter, her career rise from a humble background player championed by Valentin to leading lady matching Valentin’s fall. But as Valentin hits rock bottom Peppy decides to revitalize it for him. That is, if she can find him.
While The Artist may be plumbing the same tumultuous era of film history that 1952’s Singing In The Rain did for its story with a dash of Sunset Boulevard and A Star Is Born, The Artist goes in a stylistically different direction with its tale. There is no gaudy Technicolor glitz on display here as The Artist is a black and white, silent film. While some modern directors have chosen to work in black and white on occasion, outside of Mel Brooks I can’t think of any who have purposely chosen to evoke the era under consideration in such a way. And, for me at least, anytime something from the 1920s is referenced, there is the tendency to imagine it in black and white terms, as that is the usual photographic reference point. It is a stylistic choice by director Michel Hazanavicius that just feels right for this story. (And from a business consideration, the silent film aspect makes the film much more accessible to international audiences.)
Hazanavicius has assembled quite an array of actors for the film including the likes of Malcolm McDowell, John Goodman and James Cromwell. To their credit, no one hams it up or plays things overly dramatic in an attempt to emulate or even parody the silent film acting style. Previously, Dujardin and Hazanavicius have teamed for the pair of spy spoofs OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio. Those are highlighted with much slapstick humor and there is understandably some of that on display here. But more than that, they manage to evoke the melodrama of that period of film but never overplay it or make it seem hokey.
It is easy to see why The Artist was a huge hit at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. It is one of those rare films that not only celebrates the movies but draws you into the party where you can’t help but feel the love.