If it's crap ... We'll tell you
This is a special film. Not only because it's a reminder of why silent films represent the essence of cinema (telling stories through images only) but also because it comes out at a time where big studio Hollywood productions are facing a crisis of storytelling. It seems like every year that we get very good movies the shittiest films are even shittier than the year before. A lot of people will tell me that i'm overreacting. But if you don't believe me ask yourself this question: why do film studios in hollywood declare that they'll make sequels to films like Green Lantern that bombed at the box office and were critically pawned (sorry Co-host 3000) unless they know that we will swallow the dirt they're giving us? It's called diminished expectations, people. As long as you are told not to expect much from big studio products you're going to be easy on their films because of all the big noises and shiny things that, so you're told, make up for bad story. This film is an indication that the future of cinema does not lie in huge special effects or loud noises. It is rather an indicator as to what the roles of silent films and the foreign film industry are going to be (I mean ever since the Koreans, Chinese and Japanese overtook the horror film market we've been wondering whether the US would ever make its way back in there). Let's just say Americans should sometimes have a look beyond their national borders for artistry without remaking successul foreign films at every opportunity so as to claim them as their own (e.g. Let the Right One In or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).
Why am I starting this review like this? Because for people to understand this film it is important to know what it is telling us about the film industry today. The only reason it is such a hit, both critically and financially, is because people will come in swarms to see films that have good acting, good storytelling and good music. Even colour is unnecessary, despite the fact that films like Transformers 1,2, and 3 seem to think that sensory overload is what we want and we like to let them tell us what we want because most of us wouldn't even dare to complain about wrongly projected films. But today êople will also throw their money on the bunfire for safe movies made for mass consumption.
Yet, in the time period this story is set in (1927-1932), people like the protagonist Georges Valentin, played by the usually comedic French actor Jean Dujardin, could lose everything if the public didn't like or care for their films. Today, the only genre that's considered dangerous are comedies (and most notoriously romantic comedies) because the risk of one's humour not being shared by the majority of people means that people will stay away from the film. This film is (sort of) a romantic comedy and it succeeds both at the romance and the comedy.
Innovation in cinema made for consumption is everything and technical advancement can mean the death of those who don't go with the flow sometimes and try to make art instead of money (only 3D's a gimmick). The talkies were one of those inventions that revolutionised the world of cinema. George Valentin learns this the long, hard way. At first, he's a star of silent cinema until he bumps into one of his female admirers, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who then goes on to star in one of his films as an extra where they share a dancing scene together. This creates a sort of bond between them but since Valentin is married he does not seduce her but the attraction is obviously there. He also owns a dog that is his best friend and his co-star in many of his films. One day the studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) tells him that sound films are the new big thing (like we're being constantly told that 3D is the next big thing...which it isn't). Valentin dismisses this and makes his next silent film. However, Miller gets to be a big star in the talkies, while the big market crash of 1929 ruins Valentin financially but he's got this next big film that will make everything alright...or so he thinks. I'm not going to go into much more of the story. Suffice it to say that the dog plays a major role in his life and Valentin must discover his voice in this world full of talking people or be extinct, in a world that is always growing, always changing....
The film is so successful because of the inherent contradiction between its nature and its message that the film would show you (not tell you, duh). It would (apparently) have you believe that the past cannot come back, that there's no return to a simpler, sometimes more honest approach to filmmaking. Yet, that return is performed by the movie itself. The fact that the Golden Globes seem to have a particular feeble for this little jewel is because it pays hommage to the filmmaking tradition (and history),has powerful acting, a decent, simple story and no distractions like big CGI or even colour. It would be very startling for today's younger audience to see a black-and-white movie but that's one of the charms of this film: there is a nostalgic element for those of us who have seen such masterpieces as "Metropolis", "Nosferatu" and "Häxan", and it could even win people over who never saw a silent film before in their entire life. The soundtrack is another great thing about this film, as it goes smoothly from comedic to tragic. The opening sequence, accompanied by the score, is downright hillarious and adventurous. Another reason for why this film might be so popular is that it is a foreign film with actors not known in the US because everybody is sick of seeing the same overpaid actors doing the same "bleurgh" type of comedies. Jean Dujardin is a great actor who I knew mostly from television ("Un gars, une fille") but this puts him right on the map, like Gérard Depardieu all those years ago, and it shows that not all the talent comes from the big studio prettyfaces like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie or Tom Cruise. Just like Zac Efron he's a man of many talents, such as tapdancing (which I didn't know until I saw this film). There's also a self-awareness of the film that is great to watch, as there is one scene where suddenly everything around Valentin is making sounds and it's such an imaginative use of the medium that you have to applaud it for that. Dujardin is one of those actors who has a whole range of faces and emotions at his disposal and he knows when to use what and to what etent. Bérénice Bejo is also a real jewel in this film and I'd say she has a big future ahead of her.
Let me finish this review by saying that the film is as good as it is because it is not as shallow or pretensious as some of the costume dramas that we've seen last year (Black Swan was good, not great) and because it has a heart, namely the director's, whose beating sound can be heard while everything else is silent.
Grade: Better Than Sex.
Lovely review, Is it out on DVD or Blu-Ray yet?
nope. I saw it at my local cinema last Monday. I hope it won't be long for it to come out on DVD :). is it out in the US yet? I don't know your release dates, since I live in Belgium.
by which i mean "out in cinemas in the US".
I live in Puerto Rico also, but most limited movies like The Artist never gained a release date :(
That sucks :(. Is there any reason for this?
The economy in my country of course. It been so fucked up lately, that most of the foreign movies can't get released in Puerto Rico (although The Skin I Live In is already playing in foriegn theaters thank god). But no worries, at least it will be released on DVD or Blu-Ray when it comes out, so i can rent it.