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For Your Consideration: 'The Artist'

One of my Christmas presents was Brian Kellow's biography of movie critic Pauline Kael, an enjoyable read. If Kael's critical voice represents the beginning of modern film reviewing, it is significant that she cut her critical teeth on the first talkies as a young woman in the 1930s. Kellow notes that
Pauline was most taken with the independent spirit of the smart, fast-talking heroines of screwball comedies and progressive dramas. She later observed that in the 1930s, "The girls we in the audience loved were delivering wisecracks. They were funny and lovely because they were funny. A whole group of them with wonderful frogs in their throats. They could be serious, too. There was a period in the early 30s when Claudette Colbert, Ann Harding, Irene Dunne, and other actresses were running prisons, campaigning for governor, or being doctors and lawyers." Many of these were made prior to the 1934 establishment of the Production Code, devised by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to ensure that the screen presented a safe and sanitized view of American life (p. 12).
This is the period re-imagined in the sentimental, somewhat sappy story of The Artist, the new French film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. It begins with a star of the silent movies, George Valentin, in the 1920s -- the prehistoric era of cinema -- played by Jean Dujardin with the slicked-back hair and broad, toothy smile of Gene Kelly. He runs across a young woman, played by Bérénice Bejo (the Argentinian-born actress who has two young children with Hazanavicius), whom he helps to become Peppy Miller, a sassy star of the new talking movies, exactly the type that Pauline Kael would have admired.

The first part of The Artist is a hokey, tongue-in-cheek evocation of the silent era, cribbed quite intentionally from Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain, down to Valentin's platinum-haired dingbat co-star (the crab-faced Missi Pyle, a spot-on simulacrum of Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont, just without the voice, mercifully), and full of references to Sunset Boulevard and A Star Is Born. The conceit of silence, and the fear of or inability to talk, is spoofed in sometimes glib ways, as The Artist is a (mostly) silent film, shot in black and white. The Gene Kelly aping is not the movie's only borrowing, not least in a score that is one long, clever bit of mimicry: Kim Novak took out a full-page advertisement in Variety accusing The Artist of "rape" for its use of some of Bernard Herrmann's music for Vertigo. (Herrmann's widow, for her part, confirmed that the film's creators did not even seek her approval for the borrowing, but she feels that her husband would have approved.) Not that there is anything wrong with such tributes, whether you think of it as borrowing or stealing, but both Singin' in the Rain and Vertigo are vastly superior movies compared to The Artist. If the rumors that The Artist is the front-runner for the Academy's Best Picture award are true -- it did receive a nomination, as expected -- it must have been a lean year for movies, indeed.

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Both Dujardin and Bejo give glowing performances as the leads, a mismatched pair who help one another to weather the cruelties of Hollywood. The streets of that city are paved with the trampled dreams of countless actors, those crushed by the ever-turning Fortunae Rota in their fall from stardom, the fate that befalls George Valentin as talkies displace silent films, as well as the unnumbered masses who never made it to the top. There are numerous admirable supporting turns, from John Goodman's cigar-smoking producer, Malcolm MacDowell's cameo as a butler, James Cromwell (Babe, The Queen) as Valentin's devoted chauffeur, and Penelope Ann Miller (The Freshman, Carlito's Way) as his disaffected wife, but it is unfortunately the case in The Artist that the entire show is stolen by a dog. The adorable Jack Russell terrier named Uggie is irrepressibly cute as Valentin's canine sidekick, a performance so beloved that it has inaugurated an award called the Golden Collar. It all adds up to a film that is certainly likeable but also far from being a great or even particularly original contribution.

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