After wowing audiences all over Europe, The Artist has finally come to Asheville. You may wonder — with so many colorful action movies out there, do you really want to see an unpretentious black-and-white silent movie, made by French filmmakers? Yes, you do.
The Artist is technically a “silent movie” — but silent? Hardly. It has a sound track that’s so evocative you’ll forget there’s no spoken dialogue. Well, hardly any — at the end of the movie, there’s one line said out loud that is guaranteed to make every woman in the audience swoon.
Not only silent, but black and white, too? Oh, yes, with cinematography so exquisite, so utterly breathtaking, that you might leave the theatre wondering if you really ever want to see a movie in color again. In The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius has replaced the distraction of color with a focus on contrast, a kaleidoscope of light and dark, of textures and patterns, where feathers and drapes are always blown by a breeze, beaded dresses sparkle, rainy streets glisten, and lovers’ faces seem to glow from within.
“I won’t speak!” a dapper man in a tuxedo cries out, silently — we see his words on a full-screen dialogue card, no subtitles here. “I won’t say a word!” Fiendish torturers dial up the pain and the bad guys throw his limp body into a cell. Jack, a Jack Russell terrier wonder dog, licks the man back to consciousness. Our hero climbs out of his cell, saves the grateful ingénue, steals a snazzy biplane, and flies off, laughing in triumph.
This derring-do comes from a big movie screen showing the latest box office smash starring Georg Valentin (Jean Dujardin). The packed movie audience cheers in delight, as Valentin himself appears on stage and charms his fans into more adoration.
Valentin is a happy man. Being a movie star is great fun and the perks are terrific — a mansion in Beverly Hills, a limousine driven by his faithful chauffeur/assistant Clifton (James Cromwell), and the adulation of every woman he bumps into — including that fascinating young brunette extra, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who enchants him during a dance scene. Alas, Valentin’s a married man, not a happily married one, but, like every other unpleasant thing in life, Valentin refuses to talk about that, too.
Freed from the burden of dialogue, actors in silent movies speak with facial gestures and body language, creating unparalleled opportunities for the lost art of pantomime. In one wordless gem, alone in Valentin’s dressing room, Peppy puts her arms through the sleeves of his coat and wraps them around her, pretending it is his arms that are caressing her. You want to melt into tears from the unspoken ecstasy of it.
At the end of the 1920s, silent movies are out, talkies are in. A matinee idol who won’t talk is in a bit of a pickle. Studio producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) warns Valentin he must join the world of talkies or be left behind. Valentin pays him no heed and the cost of his arrogance is the loss of everything he owns. Only his little dog remains.
As Valentin falls to the depths, the lovely dancer he met is on the rise. Soon Peppy Miller is the dazzling new star of the talkies, thrilling audiences everywhere with her never-ending peppiness and the distinctive beauty spot that Valentin himself penciled above her lips. Despite all the boy toys that surround her, Peppy holds a place in her heart for the gracious older actor who was once so nice to her. Could the two of them possibly dance together again?
The Artist doesn’t match the emotional grandeur 1927’s classic, Sunrise. It doesn’t portray the horrors of war like All Quiet on the Western Front, or the longing of star-crossed lovers like Casablanca. In its sweet tribute to an earlier age, its simple message is that maybe talking about our problems isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. To feel better, maybe all we need to do is love someone and kick up our heels.