Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Free Admission Granted
It is common to think of the Silent Era as cinematic pre-history, a lost era ruled over by tyrannosaurs and Charlie Chaplin.
Even the most dutiful moviegoers have left silents for so much pterodactyl meat, with a few known comedy routines kept around as much for anthropology as enjoyment. For most, movie history begins in 1927 the same way that we count American presidents from 1789, John Hanson and Samuel Huntington be damned. This version of film history neglects the fact that the late twenties witnessed film’s first golden age, and that early talkies were generally a step backward.
In recent years, there has been a very small silent revival with arthouse luminaries like Guy Maddin and Aki Kurasmaki engaging the form. Until now, these efforts have been contained to the festival circuit ghetto. The revival looks to punch into the mainstream with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the first silent movie (black–and-white-and-French, to boot) to get a real release since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie in 1976, I suppose.
Would a silent movie with a story set outside the Silent Era work? Could you do The Social Network without sound? Who knows, but The Artist doesn’t take the chance. Recalling Singin’ in the Rain, the story is set around two movie stars at the crossroads of the silents and talkies – a sparkling actress on her way up and a frog-voiced actor on the way down. Of the pair, lead Jean Dujardin has been winning the lion’s share of attention, playing alongside a wise-beyond-his-species terrier. But like the plot itself, Argentine co-star Berenice Bejo steals the show, with a sunshine-smile verve that refuses to acknowledge the limits of silence. While the film will go to dark emotional places, the night is only there to set up the sunrise, and the final redemptive dance number is a tingling Golden Age sensation.
Let’s be honest – the real story is whether or not The Artist can catch fire with the public and revive the silent the way that Avatar revived 3-D or Chicago revived the musical. Will Tom Cruise don a bowler hat? Will Robert Downey Jr. go from playing Chaplin to being Chaplin? We’ll see. The Artist captured hearts at Cannes this year, and it has been the Jack Dempsey of audience prizes along the festival circuit ever since. While being a snowflake of a film, it manages to be the best snowflake that it can be.