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The Artist

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo star in "The Artist"

Silence is Golden

The Artist

There’s a jarring and brilliant moment early on in The Artist, the tale of a silent film star whose career is ruined by the coming of sound to movies. We start out in a movie theater, watching the premier of a new movie starring George Valentin. It’s an overwrought action movie, with our valiant hero being tortured by the bad guy, and as the overpowering music swells it’s a bit of a relief to cut away to the offscreen Valentin (Jean Dujardin), conferring with his producer and fretting over the reception the film is getting.

The film reaches its climax, ends, and the audience rises for a thunderous ovation.

Which we don’t hear.

That’s the moment at which you realize that The Artist isn’t just about silent movies, it is a silent movie. And for just that moment, the silence, as they say, is deafening.

This is the year when the Oscar nominations are likely to be filled with mentions of two movies that lovingly seek to recreate moments in cinema from long ago for audiences that would probably only watch the originals at gunpoint: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a tribute to pioneer film magician Georges Melies disguised as a special effects movie for young viewers, and this less expensive, less ambitious, but equally loving movie by Michel Hazanavicius.

Where Scorsese used state-of-the-art special effects to try to recreate the awe with which viewers of a century ago viewed Melies’ work, Hazanavicius relies on a more organic tactic: old-fashioned star power. Dujardin is the epitome of a classic movie idol, with John Barrymore’s profile, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s dash, and Gene Kelly’s nimble athleticism. His character’s name may evoke Rudolph Valentino, but his story borrows just as much from John Gilbert and Charlie Chaplin.

Hollywood’s biggest star, Valentin scoffs when his producer (John Goodman) shows him the technology of the future: talking motion pictures. Certain that sound is merely a fad, he self-finances his next production, which flops.

As Valentin’s star begins to fall, movie audiences fall in love with a young actress, Peppy Miller, whose career took off after a brief flirtation with Valentin in which he gives her a little something that sets her apart from other actresses. Peppy is played by Bérénice Béjo, the director’s wife and in her first scenes such a ringer for the young Mary Tyler Moore that I was expecting her to doff her cap and toss it in the air.

Plot is not The Artist’s strong point. It borrows equally from A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain, and only enough at that to push the story along. When Valentin hits his low point, the film lingers there too long, upsetting the tone of this lightweight film.

Like Scorsese, Hazanavicius is a fan of old films, and The Artist is peppered with enough references to them to entertain the casual Turner Classic Movies viewer. More advanced cineastes are likely to find it all awfully slight, a creampuff that skims over the surface of a fascinating era in film history with little depth. It’s the classic case of a good movie that is being overhyped by so many critics that you may feel disappointed by it.

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