La Petite Reine
Now Showing at: AMC Newport and Esquire
Review by: Larry Thomas
No doubt that you have long been privy to the adage that “everything old is new again.” Nowhere is that more true than in the movie business. Regardless of what’s going on in technology or personal taste, show biz is always ready to do whatever necessary to bring in the paying customers.
As well you know any hit film spawns endless imitators. Any technological upgrade, such as 3-D, stereo, digital, sends everyone into a frenzy to capitalize on that improvement du jour.
But finally, someone has hit upon an idea that makes perfect sense. In this, the second decade of the new century, someone has discovered that a poetic work of art may be fashioned from the most basic of art forms…a black-and-white silent film shot in the original aspect ratio of 1:33. It took a French filmmaker to figure it out, but with the advent of The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius has hit upon a tale that, while less than original, is completely charming and engaging.
The Artist takes place beginning in 1927, at the end of the silent film era as talking pictures are beginning to conquer the marketplace. In the wake of this upgrade in film making, some careers are left trampled in the dust. If that brief description sounds a little like Singin' in the Rain, the comparison is not lost on the serious film buff. Jean Dujardin, winner of last week’s Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy, plays George Valentin, a revered silent movie star, not unlike Douglas Fairbanks Sr., or any number of others, who finds his popularity shattered by sound. Along the way, he encounters the sprightly Peppy Miller, a young woman with talent and ambition to spare. Their paths cross as she is on the way up, and he is on the way down. And if that sounds like another riff on A Star is Born, you’re with this film all the way.
But despite the homage to films past, which some may feel to be “rip-offs,” The Artist brings it’s own artistic sensibility to the forefront. Even though it portends to be a “silent movie,” we all know that no movie is really silent, as it’s dependant on a music score to keep the action moving. Composer Ludovic Bource creates a tapestry of notes that help The Artist feel both anachronistic and contemporary at the same time. His use of music cribbed from a Hitchcock film from a later era during the finale is so perfect as to bring chills in its use.
Even though Jean Dujardin, as George Valentin, bears an uncanny resemblance to Gene Kelly, both in his facial expressions as well as his dancing style, he is a completely new character with his own personality, as well as his dependable companion, an equally talented and charming Jack Russell terrier, who may well be the movies most marvelous dog since Rin Tin Tin or Toto.
Even though the seriously cute and talented Bérénice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, plays the clichéd chorus girl who soars to superstardom, you’re with her and cheering every step of the way.
In addition to being mostly dialogue-free, one of the great joys of The Artist is the use of peripheral characters. Some of these actors with no more than one scene look just like character actors in the 1920s would appear. And the film is a set designer’s dream job. It looks gorgeous in the execution, and the photography offers some cinematic shots that are absolutely breathtaking in their execution.
In addition to the French actors and crew, you’ll see some familiar faces in The Artist. John Goodman is perfect as the movie mogul in charge of the studio. Oscar-nominee James Cromwell from the Babe films plays Valentin’s loyal chauffeur. Bill Murray’s brother Joel plays a policeman who has a pivotal role in the action. Even such cinematic icons as A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell, and eternal b-movie starlet Jewel Shepherd, from Return of the Living Dead, have one-scene cameos that will have you besotted with cinematic joy.
All in all, The Artist is truly a work of art. A cinematic gem that stands on it’s own, as well as acting as an entry ticket into discovering the joys of a bygone era. And if seeing this magnificent endeavor causes even one of you to rent and watch a silent movie from the early part of the 20th century, then it will have achieved its goal. In addition, it was also the recipient of three Golden Globe Awards last week: best musical or comedy film, best actor, and best original score. The Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday morning, and it’s a foregone conclusion that The Artist will be mentioned more than once, and rightly so.
Once again, the French show us what’s really important when it comes to movie making.
The PG-13 rated The Artist is currently flickering on the screens at the Esquire Theatre and the AMC Newport. Do not let it leave town without your having seen it.