The fact that The Artist is a black and white silent film makes all the difference. It was a unique kind of film experience. Our eyes soaked up the perfect shades of grey and understood the first language we ever learned; body language. Our ears were more relaxed, not searching words to decipher for meaning, but instead had music that perfectly lead us to the correct emotional state of each scene. Without booming voices and today’s typical loud things that happen in movies (explosions, gunfire, screaming, Michael Bay-style annoyances), the entire theater experience was quieter than expected and I could hear laughter from rows away. It was easy to see ourselves in the shots of audiences watching movies.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star in 1927 who loves the attention it brings him. He is a bit conceited, giving his dog more credit than his costar and wife. When a fan bumps into him with photographers all around, George plays along, sparking the question, “Who’s that girl?” With her picture in the paper next to a star, she has more confidence and becomes an extra at Kinograph studios, under the name Peppy Miller (Supporting Actress nominated, Bérénice Bejo). Little did she know she would be working with George and that he would help her find the one thing that can make her stand out from the other girls. There is an obvious attraction between the two.
Problems arise for George, when he refuses to move on to talkies. At first, he laughs, thinking a talking film is ridiculous. When he understands the threat it presents to his work, he tries to fight it, by making his own silent film and making arguments against talkies in the papers. Soon, he realizes it is too late. We understand him to be a man stuck in one place as the rest of the world, including rising star Peppy, moves on without him. That staircase scene helped illustrate that idea perfectly, no words needed.
With his Clark Gable style looks and Fred Astaire moves, Best Actor nominated Jean Dujardin feels perfectly natural in this silent era role as George. All his “mugging at the camera” does not feel like mugging, but a perfect portrayal of emotions that can range so far across his face and movement. When he smiles, it’s joyous. His lowest moments can break our hearts. Even when George’s guard is up, Dujardin has a way of showing how George truly feels. This sort of silent acting is not miming, but a true art that has to reach deeper than superficial words, and Dujardin proves that he is a master.
I believe that music is much more important in a silent film. It sets the tone and can replace the voices some may miss. In one scene, you will see how orchestras used to play live at the front of the theater, providing live music to accompany the film. Ah, how I would love to experience a silent film the old fashioned way. The music composed for this film spans a wide range of depth, from toe-tapping jazzy to sweepingly dramatic. And it all keeps true to the era portrayed. If these points are taken into consideration, there is no competition against The Artist for Best Original Score.
Besides Best Picture, Original Score and the two acting nominations, The Artist was also nominated for Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Film Editing, Costume Design and Michel Hazanavicius for Best Director. That is a big 10 nominations for a film that seems so out of the ordinary. Only one other film has more nominations this year, Hugo with 11.
What surprised me the most about The Artist, is that even though there are some themes that hearken back to Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, it feels very original. I was not able -nor distracted enough to try- to guess what would happen next. The plot was driven by the characters, and they felt so real and compelling that the whole audience celebrated their triumphs and mourned beside them; even the dog.
The Artist gives me hope for the next generation of film making. Taking a step back and remembering exactly why we love film, what originally made it so great, is one of the best ways to improve upon this art. This is an amazing homage to an important era in film history that keeps the visuals and ideas simple. But most importantly, it puts story and character first.
If The Academy is looking to award the most unconditional film that celebrates why people have always loved the movies, The Artist will win the Oscar for Best Picture.