Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, and John Goodman.
Runtime: 100 mins. Reviewed in Jan 2012
This French comedy-drama film has 10 Oscar nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards, and has earned Jean Dujardin a Best Actor Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
The film is photographed entirely in black and white, and is made almost without any voices on its sound track. It is set in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932, and this is the era when silent cinema gave way to the invention of talkie.
In 1927, a fading silent-film star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), attends the premier of his latest movie. He poses for pictures, and an ardent fan, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), accidently bumps against him in the crowd. Peppy later auditions as a dancer and is drawn into one of his movies. Attracted to her,Valentin wants her to appear in his next production, which he helps to finance, but his silent movie is a flop. It also clashes with the release of a sound movie, starring Peppy Miller, and sound cinema is clearly the way of the future. Isolated, financially ruined, destitute, and sacked by his Studio, Valentin tries to burn his old movie reels, and is injured in the fire. Peppy visits him in hospital and asks for Valentin to be moved to her house, so that she can help him to recover. Valentin is depressed that Peppy is a famous sound actress in her own right, but she is in love with Valentin, and she insists that her next production include him as her co-star. Reluctantly, her grumpy producer, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), agrees to the two of them making a musical together. The new musical is destined to be a success. Valentin, the fading film star finds fame at last with sound, and the adoring fan, who has never forgotten him, lends her fame to make him a star once again. The film concludes with an exuberant dance number between Peppy and Valentin that borrows from the dance routines of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The delighted camera crew ask for a second take, and their voices become clearly audible on the film’s sound-track.
This is a beguiling movie, oozing with affectionate nostalgia, and is wonderfully assertive of the joy of cinema. Its images are driven by the magic of cinema, and there is a feel-good quality to it that is contagious. The movie cleverly uses modern techniques to point the way to inevitable change. Sound startles Valentin when he doesn’t expect to hear it, and he is anxious by not hearing sound when it should be there. There are allusions to famous movies, like Orson Welles’ classic, “Citizen Kane” (1941), George Cukor’s “A Star is Born” (1954), and even the sound track of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), but the allusions don’t weigh the movie down, and they never compromise the film’s originality. They simply become part of the tribute to the joy of movie-making that this film engenders so warmly.
The performance of Jean Dujarin, as a silent actor threatened by a medium he can’t understand, is wonderful. His acting amazingly portrays just how rarely we need sound (or a subtitle) to know and understand human emotions and communications.
Many of the techniques used in the movie are highly inventive, and the movie plays with their introduction in almost a teasing way. Miller and Valentin tap-dance on either side of the screen, shadow-images move unexpectedly, split-screen techniques show a bodiless pair of dancing legs, and sound intrudes suddenly into a silent image to startle us. In these ways, we are made to recognise how imaginative sound-films have become. Cinema is an entrancing visual medium, and the film, by illustrating that, cleverly invites comparison with what has replaced silent movie-making.
The movie captures brilliantly what made films so enjoyable long ago, but Hollywood, barred from talking, is not the point of this movie. The film gives us the chance to get lost in bygone times, but more significantly, it presents us with a modern and very unusual look at the joy of movie-making.
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