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Review: 'The Artist' is stunningly beautiful

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
November 25, 2011 -- Updated 2140 GMT (0540 HKT)
"The Artist," starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, has distilled cinema to something it so rarely achieves: pure joy in art.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Artist" is a film everyone should see because it's joyous
  • The story is relatively simple and takes plot elements from "Singing in the Rain"
  • The film is peppered with sight gags in the best of classic Hollywood tradition

(CNN) -- I am probably neither the first nor last critic to say this, but Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" is a flawless film.

There is literally nothing wrong with it. I don't have a single nit to pick, minor flaw to point out or little bit that annoyed me. It is pure magic from the first frame to the last. It is proof that to be moving, engaging, enthralling and fun, movies have no need for sex or violence, color or even spoken dialog, for that matter.

That's not to say I don't love many films with all those things, but "The Artist" has distilled cinema to something it so rarely achieves: pure joy in art.

This is not art for art's sake, this is art for enjoyment's sake. It's not an "important" film that we all need to see because it's great art (although it is both important and art) it is a film that everyone should see because it's joyous. It's stunningly beautiful. It's a throwback to some of the things that brought people into the cinema in the first place. The chance to escape their lives and live someone else's for a time.

The story is relatively simple and takes plot elements from "Singing in the Rain," "Citizen Kane" and "A Star is Born" as well as the best of Hollywood melodrama. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a matinee idol, a star of the (silent) silver screen. Along with his faithful Jack Russell terrier (Uggie), Valentin stars in action adventures and is revered by men and women alike.

It's the age old story: Men want to be him and women want to be with him.

At the premiere of his latest blockbuster, as George is mugging for the cameras and signing autographs, he runs into Peppy Miller (a luminous Bérénice Bejo), an aspiring actor. They meet cute when she is caught in the throng of autograph seekers (she is one herself) and suddenly finds herself on the other side of the policemen holding back the crowd and standing right next to her idol.

Taking advantage of the situation, Peppy begins to mug, planting one on her idol's cheek, landing the pair on the cover of Variety and setting the plot in motion, a variation on the old "boy meets girl" standard. While George is reveling in his box office glory and Peppy is hoping to make the most of her instant fame, George's wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), is stewing in jealousy and resentment. And while the photo in Variety is completely innocent, one gets the feeling her fears may not be completely groundless.

Peppy lands a gig as an extra in George's next film and the obvious attraction between the two begins to manifest itself. Peppy is a starstruck aspiring actress just beginning her career in show business and George is a veteran movie star and ladies man at the top of his game. You also get the feeling he's been in this situation before.

Things are going well for George. Despite the unrest at home, he's got a new film, he's got a new crush and all is right in his world, until the head of the studio, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), begins to embrace the talkies. While Al is convinced that the advent of sound is the future of film, George is convinced the public will stick with him, so he bets on the continued popularity of the silent film. Thus, his career begins to wane, just as Peppy's beings to wax.

The end of the silent era (and his marriage) and the crash of the stock market send George into a spiral of booze and self-loathing, with only his faithful dog and chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) sticking by him. Bitter over the demise of his career, George even lashes out at what he sees as the symbol of that decline, Peppy.

"The Artist" isn't actually a silent film per se, as it has a score and well, I won't spoil it for you, but Hazanavicius' use of sound is ingenious. However, for all intents and purposes, it is silent. For the actors, there was very little difference, as they still speak their lines, we just don't hear them, but for the audience, the change is immeasurable. Instead of watching their faces almost exclusively, we find our eyes drifting across the screen and noticing things that perhaps we might not have noticed otherwise.

A subtle cue of body language, the placing of objects within the frame, how the music moves the action along, all of these and more come alive when we're not tied to watching the actors speak. Hazanavicius has a deft hand at directing and a delightful sense of whimsey. The film is peppered with sight gags in the best of classic Hollywood tradition, and both Dujardin and Bejo prove more than up for the task. A brief pantomime between Bejo and one of George's suit jackets is worth the price of admission alone -- and keep your eye on the dog!

Hazanavicius and his backers took a huge risk in making the film. They funded a black and white, silent film with two unknown (in the United States) leads and a handful of supporting Hollywood talent. However, when Dujardin picked up the best actor prize at Cannes and reviews started to pour in, they knew they had a winner on their hands.

A pure and open love letter to the cinema, "The Artist" contains many nods and winks to the history of this art form and clever viewers will pick up on a few cues. It is, as I have mentioned, a comedy, a melodrama and a romance, but above all, it fulfills the promise of what cinema can be at its best. It takes us on a journey up to the peaks and down in the valleys, through love, loss, heartbreak and despair and right back around again to love.

"The Artist" is rated PG-13, although it's on the tame end of the scale. A bird is flipped, there are a few moments of characters in jeopardy and quite a bit of smoking, if that sort of thing bothers you.

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