Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Artist

The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius, 100 minutes
September 10, 2011, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 10 am    

My first film at TIFF! Just a man, his dog and his wounded pride ... I saw this film with Chris Edwards, the bright light behind the blog Silent Volume. Chris is an enormous silent film aficiondo and was just as excited as I was to see this film I think.    

This film was shot in black and white, without dialogue or sound except for a few pivotal scenes that employ sound in a highly effective and evocative manner. 
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) - the winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2011 - evokes a debonair Douglas Fairbanks with his cheesy, over blown acting style and pencil thin moustache.   George is a silent film matinee idol in 1927 who accidentally bumps into aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at the premiere of his latest film. Although George is married to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) sparks fly when she appears as an extra in his next film.    

Bejo is, I think, meant to summon up the ghost of Clara Bow, pretty, sensuous and playful on film and she is largely successful playing a sort of confident, high-spirited flapper from the 20s with a career that is soon to sky rocket while George's plummets.    

In one key scene, we hear sound for the first time in the film and George hears it too. Everyone and every thing has a voice, a sound, except for him – he is speechless, unable to speak, or scream or cry. It’s an apt metaphor for George losing his place in the Hollywood pantheon with the advent of the talkies.     

When the talkies hit the screen, George bucks the trend and he finances his own silent feature in 1929 which fails miserably whereas the new It girl Peppy's star rises higher and higher. You see where this is going if you are a lover of classic film - it's shades of A Star is Born but, luckily, with a happier twist of fate at the end.  

The power of silent film was much about choosing the right faces and Hazanavicius chooses wisely for almost all the roles. Dujardin, a French actor, has the right degree of self-congratulatory confidence and then intense melancholy when life goes awry after much good fortune - losing his wife, home, car, fans and personal effects. I couldn't help thinking that Bérénice Bejo's face was all wrong for the era although my friend Chris disagreed - she's a pretty girl with enormous eyes but with a too generous mouth and an athletic boniness that work against the image for me.    

As usual in period films I become distracted by the too tidy appearance of the vintage cars and street scenes that minimize the power of the film for me.    

George's pet (the dog Ugg, a "genius in the dog world" as the director Michel Hazanavicius put it in the Q&A) adds humour and pathos to the film as do small roles by James Cromwell as George's faithful chauffeur and John Goodman as a crusty studio head.    

As charming as the film was I'm afraid it's a bit of one trick pony - how many silent films can be made in 2011 about the demise of the silent film industry?    

The director Michel Hazanavicius, Jean Dujardin (with a French translator) and James Cromwell all appeared for the Q&A afterwards. They were gracious and funny. Pretty much everyone fares well before the adoring crowds at TIFF that are known for their enthusiasm and goodwill at screenings. 
TIFF of the day: Speaking of "It girls" … we were standing in front of a journalist from Minneapolis in the rush line who pointed out Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, The Help) entering the TIFF Lightbox just before the film started. She looked so dainty and normal and likely was watching the film with us. My friend Chris also had an encounter with Jean Dujardin but you'll have to find out what that was by going to his twitter account:!/SilentVolume. It ain’t pretty folks.

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