MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Artist


The Artist (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.-France: Michel Hazanavicius

The Artist, a movie about the Golden Age of Hollywood, is a superb silent film in black and white by the French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius. It’s an utterly wonderful show: a gloriously anachronistic little film with actors who don’t talk and pictures that sing — and a story full of romance and coincidence, pathos and slapstick, and beautiful people erupting in spasms of comedy and tragedy on sun-splashed Los Angeles streets.

In other words — unspoken of course — it’s a fabulous cinematic feast in the style of the old time silent movies that flourished from almost the time of film‘s invention in 1895 — or at least since Georges Melies started telling stories with them before the turn of the century — until 1927, when Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer made the screen speak and sing and told us we ain’t heard nothing yet and, unmaliciously of course , drove a nail in the coffin of the old technology, while ushering in the new.

The Artist isn’t just a stunt though — and also not just a shrewdly knowledgeable pastiche of old time movies, done amazingly in a style that replicates not only their look, but their mood and feeling. It’s a movie that, in the end, reminds us of how beautiful silent black and white movies can be, of how beautiful any black and white movie can be, of how expressive those seeming lacks (lack of synchronous sound, lack of color) can be, in the hands of an artist. Or sometimes even, in the hands of a fool.


In this film after all, the word “artist” is used with double-edged irony. Hazanivicius celebrates and brilliantly reproduces the film artistry of the silent period, and proves himself a true silent picture artist in the process. But actually, the character who thinks he‘s the artist in The Artist is a dope, a fool with the face and pencil thin mustache of a matinee idol: Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a swashbuckling lover and superstar, who looks a bit like Rudolph Valentino, and acts like a copy of Valentino and Doug Fairbanks. Of course, he instills memories of poor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) in Singin’ in the Rain, another silent movie lover/swashbuckler, a pseudo-Fairbanks whose absurd motto is “dignity, always dignity,” and who finds himself beached in the new talkie era, with audiences who ridicule his lovemaking and only a Lina to lean on. (Lamont.)

But if Don Lockwood was a fool of a sort, directors Kelly and Stanley Donen — and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, made sure that he was a knowing fool, a curable one who knew when the clock was ticking, and that he had a Cosmo and a Kathy as well, and that he danced like a dream, especially in the rain. George Valentin in The Artist is no Kelly and no James Mason, but he also has a great movie girl, A Star is Born named Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo) and she loves and admires him (like Star’s Vicki Lester (Blodgett) loved Norman Maine in A Star is Born), but he neglects her at first, rejects the sweet foolishness of the silent movies that made him famous, walks out on his boor of a studio boss (John Goodman as Al Zimmer) and tries to direct and write himself (a mistake) in what he misbelieves is art (another mistake). Poor foolish pseudo-artist! Poor pseudo-Valentino! George winds up in a stripped mansion with no servants (Malcolm McDowell and James Cromwell as the butler and chauffeur who have left), no wife (the vamoosed Penelope Ann Miller, who once played Charlie‘s darling Edna Purviance) and the most faithful of little dogs (Uggie, a woofing marvel) to keep him company as fate and fire close in.

But George is lucky as well as stupid. And luckily, he not only makes silent movies, he lives in a silent movie, and one of the kind that usually has a happy ending. And, of course, that has a fetching leading lady to kiss before the last blackout.

Hazanavicius made his fortune with two movie parodies — of more recent movie convention in the James Bond send-ups, OSS 117: Lost in Rio and OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, both of which starred Dujardin as the Bond character. Dujardin is a superlative film actor, and a master of physical humor. Berenice Bejo has a face that breathes the Roaring Twenties and legs that were made to dance a Charleston. Goodman’s Al Zimmer acts as if he could have eaten Harry Cohn for lunch and washed him down with Louis B. Mayer. And if you want a dog to share your decline with, Uggie’s your pooch.

The Artist is pastiche more than parody — though a very funny pastiche. Hazanavicius isn’t really making fun of silent movies. He’s actually made a movie that, but for a snatch of dialogue or two, could have played in a silent movie theater back in 1926. Those theaters, we sometimes forget, were never silent. They had nonstop music for the show (sometimes recorded), and maybe even a sound effect or two (if the pianist or organist could muster them). Hazanavicius obviously loves silent movies, because he catches their spirit, the sometimes cockeyed, sometimes poetic essence of the silly romances and comedies and stark dramas that the audience loved, maybe the Twilights of their day, but less fattening.

Back in 1976, Mel Brooks made a silent movie about a movie studio called Silent Movie, a movie with only one word of dialogue (delivered by Marcel Marceau). But Brooks did it in color and he set it in the present day and it didn’t work nearly as well, as parody or comedy, as his black and white Young Frankenstein. Black and white for a movie is not a deficient medium, but one capable of being gloriously revived again and again — in Manhattan, in Raging Bull, in Broadway Danny Rose, in Stranger Than Paradise, in Schindler’s List, and then being forgotten again, sadly and wrongly. (Want to make a great modern noir? Do it in black and white.)


Yet The Artist proves again just how delightfully silly a black and white comedy can be, just as Raging Bull and Schindler‘s List re-proved how perfectly monochrome photography can enhance drama. “Black and white is the actor’s friend,“ Orson Welles once said, and who would know better? Black and white is certainly Dujardin’s friend here, and the comrade of all his castmates: Friends and lovers, boors and butlers, audiences and players. (And in The Artist, of course, black and white is a dog’s best friend too.)

 May all actors be lit and photographed by a cinematographer as great as Gregg Toland — or as Guillaume Schuffman (The Artist). And may The Artist be the very next black and white silent film you see — especially if you’ve never seen any before. The next, but not the last. Because, believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

If you havent seen many, or any, silent movies, you’re missing as delightful an experience as The Artist. Here’s a start-up list for people who’ve been avoiding them: 16 (or 18, if you count the whole of the Von Sternebrg box set) silent movies to see before you die. 
1. Intolerance (D. W. Griffith: 1916) With Lillian Gish and Constance Talmadge (Kino)
2. Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919) With Gish (Kino)
3. The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921) With Chaplin (Warner)

4. Safety Last (Fred Newmeyer/Sam Taylor, 1923) with Harold Lloyd (New Line)

5. The Navigator (Donald Crisp/Buster Keaton, 1924) with Keaton. (Kino)

6. The Thief of Baghdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) With Douglas Fairbanks. (Kino)

7. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924) With Florence Vidor and Adolphe Menjou (Image)

8. Greed (Erich Von Stroheim, 1925) With Jean Hersholt and ZaSu Pitts (MGM)

9. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925) With Chaplin (Warner)

10. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925) With John Gilbert (Warner)

11. The General (Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, 1927) With Keaton (Kino)

12. Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927) With Janet Gaynor (Fox)

13. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928) With James Murray (Warner)

14. The Wind (Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom), 1928) With Gish (MGM)

15. The Docks of New York ( Josef Von Sternberg, 1928) In 3-Disc Box Set, with Von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) and The Last Command (1928) (Criterion Classics)

16. City Lights (Chaplin, 1931) With Chaplin (1931) (Warner)


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