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Film review: Enjoy the silents in the 'The Artist'

Hollywood takes an interest in film history as the movie mecca appears in danger of becoming history.

December 02, 2011|By Andy Klein
  • Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller in Michel Hazanavicius's film "The Artist." (Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company)
Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as…

Hollywood doesn't make very many films about itself, let alone paeans to its ancient history. So how can we explain two such titles opening simultaneously — on the very same day — last month? I swore I wouldn't use the hack phrase “love letter to the cinema,” even though it's exactly appropriate for both Martin Scorsese's wonderful “Hugo” (reviewed here last week) and Michel Hazanavicius's even more wonderful “The Artist.”

So how about “fan letter to film”? “Bouquet for the big screen”? “Mash note to the movies”? Whatever.

Both releases deal with filmmakers who are stranded in the wake of industry upheavals, left behind after the parade's gone by. In “Hugo,” it's the real French pioneer Georges Melies, who during cinema's first decade saw possibilities in film that others couldn't have conceived of, only to be left behind when the new narrative techniques of D.W. Griffith and others became the ruling aesthetic. In “The Artist,” it's the fictional George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a star who looks like the young Fredric March and acts like Douglas Fairbanks, and who — unlike the real Fairbanks — refuses to accept the arrival of talkies. (Admission: Counting “The Artist” as a “Hollywood” — or even American — film may be a stretch. Its minimal dialogue is in English, and it was shot here, with a largely American cast, but it's technically a French production, whose writer/director and two stars are all French.)

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Commercial movies barely acknowledge their history, perhaps fearing (correctly?) that modern audiences — viewing silent films, and even early talkies, through irony-clad eyes — will appreciate them only as camp. The most recent major film to deal with the silent years was “Chaplin” (1992), but even that was centrally about the man, not the medium.

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