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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Artist' harkens back to silent-film era

In this film publicity image released by The Weinstein Company, Jean Dujardin portrays George Valentin, left, and Berenice Bejo portrays Peppy Miller in a scene from "The Artist." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company) 

In this film publicity image released by The Weinstein Company, Jean Dujardin portrays George Valentin, left, and Berenice Bejo portrays Peppy Miller in a scene from "The Artist." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company) 

The Artist

(PG-13)

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

There are throwback films and then there's "The Artist." In a time where everything has to be bigger, brighter, longer, meaner and louder, it is basic, short and sweet and harkens back to a time really not that long ago when a movie's success was completely predicated on good acting and a well-told story.

If you haven't yet heard, it's a (mostly) silent, black-and-white movie set in Depression-era Hollywood by an unknown director featuring unknown leads. Are you psyched yet? A great many movie bloggers have already written it off as an attention-grabbing gimmick (which it kind of is) and that if it were released during the heyday of silent films, it would be regarded by most as just above average and largely forgettable.

What these bloggers and many audiences will miss is French writer/director Michel Hazinavicius' use of an arcane medium to make a statement on the rapid growth of technology and its effect on creative art forms. In an era when any hack can make a movie and cover up their sins with corrective computer applications, it's getting harder to tell what is talent and toil or Photoshop, CGI and synthesized everything.

To be clear, there are going to be very few people who are going to want to see "The Artist" beyond critics, art-house stalwarts, silent-film junkies and people who vote on and hand out year-end awards. This is a prestige film that will do only modest box-office, garner many glowing accolades and forever change the lives of everyone associated for the better.

It's probably no coincidence that Hazinavicius gave his lead male character George (Jean Dujardin) the last name Valentin. A suave guy with an olive complexion and pencil-thin moustache, George is clearly modeled after both Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, the acknowledged kings of the silent era. Dujardin's resemblance to Fairbanks is eerily uncanny.

The film opens with the totally unprepared George in complete denial of the impending end of silent films. Talkies have already arrived and he's correctly assumed the shelf life for stars of his ilk is getting close to the expiration date. In his latest feature, George is paired opposite Peppy Miller (Brazilian stunner Berenice Bejo), an opportunistic dancer with considerable zeal and tunnel-vision professional drive ready to position herself as the next "it" girl. In mere moments of running time, the fates of George and Peppy start heading in completely opposite directions and the passing of the metaphorical torch is done.

During the film's most important scene, Peppy -- unaware that George is sitting behind her in a restaurant -- is being interviewed by two fawning members of the press and with a thousand-watt smile, delivers an "out with the old, in with the new" sound bite that devastates George. Before exiting the room in a restrained huff, George addresses Peppy with a handful of carefully selected words that gives him momentary satisfaction and leaves her devastated.

Now halfway complete, the movie begins to take on a decidedly darker tone that owes a great deal to "Citizen Kane" and '50s-era film noir. With each subsequent scene Hazinavicius ups the emotional ante and appropriately distances the narrative from the light comedy mindset. It's not depressing as such, just far more grounded in reality. It slowly starts morphing into something much richer and far more complex.

Keeping the film from achieving complete perfection is Hazinavicius' highly questionable decision to subtitle roughly only half of the dialogue. Unless you're a lip-reader, you're going to miss what has to be vital plot information and with a movie like this, that could become a major deal-breaker. The argument could be: we should be able to discern what the characters are "feeling" and not exactly what they're saying and that should be more than enough. Maybe so, but no filmmaker should push an audience further than they have to and many will feel that's the case here.

The last scene in "The Artist" goes far in vanquishing the surface arguments regarding the "gimmick" allegations and will likely leave the majority of viewers exhilarated. They've just witnessed a modern take via a long-gone artform that should -- make that hopefully -- have them understand that all of the sensory overload they now take for granted wouldn't have been possible without some very key and formative baby steps. (The Weinstein Company)