Dir. Michel Hazanavicius
In a nearly flawless example of artistic synchronicity, director Michel Hazanavicius's audacious film asks its audience to engage with a '20s style silent drama about a movie star of the silent era facing the impending career doom of the rise of the talkies. But that's not even all Hazanavicius adds to the film's degree of difficulty. Not only is the film 99 percent silent, it's also shot in the boxy ratio (1.33 : 1) of the era, and, naturally, is in B&W -- and not the high-contrast, gorgeous Scorsese type of B&W, either; the shades are off-puttingly muted and grey. With so much to overcome, then, how is the film able to garner our rapt attention and earn a Palme d'Or nomination at this year's Cannes festival? By utilizing the basis of successful films since before there was even a silent era: a hell of a story populated by characters we care about.
When we first meet George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the silent star in question, he's riding high on the strength of yet another well-received action picture featuring his debonair good looks, his devil-may-care attitude and his trusty Jack Russell terrier. Egotistic and fully engorged with celebrity, he enjoys the lavish praise of an adoring public, and all of the subsequent niceties of fame. It's not that George is a bad man -- in fact, he helps out a young wanna-be starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), on the set of his new picture when he gallantly defends her from his pugnacious producer, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) -- he's just vain, and filled with his own sense of invincibility. Thus it is when Zimmer shows Valentin an early screen test with audio (which for us remains silent), he laughs it off as a passing fad. Soon after, when his fortunes collapse, and his pride keeps him from making the transition to the new talkie era, we see just how far he intends to go to make his point to an uncaring society.
The film features transfixing performances from Dujardin and Bejo, who manage the difficult task of conveying the story without resorting to preening, and a sure-footed script that teases out a well-worn story with wit and conviction. Beyond all that, though,
Hazanavicius has cannily crafted a potent metaphor of our time: Our leaps of technological know-how always leave older versions in the dust, creating a never ending parade of has-beens whose expiration date of fame and efficacy have long since been exceeded. At one point, Valentin is quoted to say he stands by his decision to refuse the new Hollywood because he is "an artist," and, therefore, will not yield in the face of public sentiment, which begs a significant question: Are artists made by not accepting that which feels untrue to them, or are they just attempting to hide from the inexorable march of their era?