In the late 1920s, the advent and takeover of sound in the Hollywood motion-picture industry undermines the stellar career of George Valentin, a devil-may-care onscreen icon. Meanwhile, the film career of his biggest fan, Peppy Miller, advances. As George resists speaking in front of the camera, and discovers he cannot speak off-camera either, and his turn of fortune strips bare his once lavish lifestyle, causing everyone to abandon him, including his wife/co-star (“George, we’ve got to talk!”), except for his loyal chauffeur and his loving (and adorable) dog, Peppy, herself now rich, operates behind the scenes to keep George from dropping into the gutter.
Amiably written and more than amiably directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist, from France and Belgium, explodes on the screen with an ambiguous “Bang!” It evolves inro a parable of the hardship that maintaining integrity in the world inflicts, especially when everyone around you mistakes your courage and commitment for “pride.” Although it hardly qualifies as any sort of work of art, The Artist is rousing, at times brilliant, musical-comedy-romantic entertainment. It is also among the most deeply affecting films ever to win a best picture Oscar.*
But, despite its publicity, it is only rarely, sporadically, anything like a genuine silent film—and the silence is sometimes confusing, as when the film adheres to Peppy rather than George. Moreover, its heralded black and white is uninteresting and nondescript. The Artist often seems like a color sound film from which heard speech has been artificially erased.
On the other hand, its cumulative joyousness—the resolution for George and Peppy is a brisk dance for the camera—is irresistible. We cannot help but recall that Penny was the name of Fred’s Ginger in the Depression Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936)—Peppy to Penny: close enough..
Jean Dujardin won the best actor Oscar for his rollicking George on-the-skids, but the light of the film is fabulous Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s almost insanely talented wife, as Peppy. I’m sorry; but I seriously doubt that anyone, including any Academy voter, could possibly really prefer Meryl Streep’s empty bag of tricks in The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011) to Bejo’s luminous humanity in The Artist.** Bejo may be Ginger Rogers.
* The Artist has won a plethora of prizes for best film and best direction.
** Bewilderingly, Bejo was nominated in the supporting actress category.
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