September 10, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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The Artist is a beautiful film hot-house flower, designed to flourish in the rarefied atmosphere of festivals and gatherings of cineastes. It’s a curio that will be cherished by some, and probably ignored by most of the masses. 

Like Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” Michel Hazanavicius uses the grammar of vintage film to tell a story about the movies. Unlike Brooks’ comedy, this one is actually set in the silent era, and scrupulously obeys the rules of the time.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a star of the silent era, smug in his audience’s adoration. (Dujardin also played the lead in Hazanavicius’ OSS-117 movies, as a French version of Austin Powers, and he does smug very well). He has a distant wife (Penelope Ann Miller), a loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell), and a friend in the studio head (John Goodman). In the way of silent romantic comedies, he accidentally meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and falls platonically in love. The year is 1927, though, and George’s refusal to make movies with sound–he’s no Chaplin–ruins his career: The Artist follows his reversals of fortune to an inevitable–and cleverly executed– happy ending.
That’s really all there is to the movie’s content, and it’s ultimately pretty thin–a homage in cliches is still trading in cliches. But the style! Guillame Schiffmann’s black and white photography, composed for a traditional 1:1.33 aspect ratio screen, is spectacular, all cream and shades of black. The production design unerringly apes the look of the era, and the film was shot at 22 frames per second rather than 24, providing a slightly jumpy look that accords with the time. It’s a technical triumph that goes beyond technique–these details give The Artist its soul.
The actors, too, manage to suggest silent performing style while avoiding the “mugging” that the picture accurately suggests make the films of silent days look dated. They’re stylized yet natural, and it all gels.

The Artist will deserve its place on Top 10 lists this year, and the long stays it should enjoy in the ArcLights and Angelikas of this world. Whether a broader audience will fall for its superficial but lovely charms is less of a certainty.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."