Original US release date: November 25, 2011
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $133,452,856
There are some films that – while popular and well-received – are never really given their full due. I feel like Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is one of those films. I’m not so much referring to his peers and those within the industry. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 2012 and won five of them, including Best Picture. But, despite being a hit with audiences, as well (it grossed nearly nine times its production budget), I have always been under the impression that the genius of the film was lost on many.
Set in the late ’20s, The Artist follows silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he struggles with the introduction of talkies into the motion picture scene. Frankly, the overarching storyline is the only real issue I have with the film, as it’s been done before in two other very famous films that focus on that same transition. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was his own personal metaphor on how the introduction of talkies led to his feelings of irrelevance. And then Singin’ in the Rain tells the story of an entire movie studio having to deal with the transition to the talkies. So, this idea had been addressed before.
The Artist is a little different, however, in that it’s not a metaphor, as with Modern Times, and it’s a more singular, personal story than Singin’ in the Rain. At the height of his popularity, Valentin meets a young wannabe starlet by the name of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and gives her a few pointers. Her career takes off and she shoots to superstardom with the advent of sound, while Valentin’s career falls off, as he is unable to make the transition.
The film, itself, is – with a couple of brief exceptions – a black and white silent film. This choice isn’t just for the sake of cosmetic serendipity. The story is told from Valentin’s perspective. His whole life is black-and-white silent filmmaking. Therefore, his story is told as a black-and-white silent film. It seems obvious when one thinks about it, but so many think that filmmakers do things “just because it’s different or it looks cool” without any regard to the creative implications behind it, as if these people are independent professional wrestlers. No, there’s actual thought put behind these choices and simple, but poetic, choices like that often make the difference between good films and great films.
That is, they make the difference as long as everything else around those choices holds up. And, in this case, everything does. I can’t speak highly enough about the cast. In what is yet another component of this film that largely goes unappreciated, the entire cast had to forget everything they had ever been taught about acting and instead do the opposite. When acting in film, the general line of thinking is to act from the neck up – with your voice, face, and eyes – and keep the gesticulating to a minimum or at least to a more natural level than on television. Everyone is so large on a movie screen that wild body movements come off as too much and as overacting.
But in this film, no one can use their voice. So everything else needs to be big in order to communicate their message to the audience. For the moments where the message is a little more complex, they have the assistance of the traditional dialogue cards, but there aren’t a whole of those and the storytelling is almost entirely dependent upon the cast’s ability to communicate without words. It must have been one of the more challenging projects of each of their careers.
The Artist won Best Picture (and so many other awards) for a very simple reason: it’s an incredible film. It was difficult to make, it conveys a relatable and emotional tale about a man facing his own irrelevance, and everyone involved in the production fulfills their roles flawlessly. That’s hard to argue against. This is exactly the kind of outside-the-box filmmaking that theoretically pleases audiences and wins awards. This time, fortunately, The Artist fulfilled its potential in both arenas.
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