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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Artist: Larger than life, shorter than its theme

In one of my favorite scenes in the Oscar-hopeful French film, 'The Artist', the fallen hero pours out the drink onto a table in desperation - as if to wash him out. But to his dismay, and to our delight, his narcissistic image stares him back from the puddle on the table. Beautifully crafted and hilariously acted out, The Artist will surprise you - as a silent, black-and-white 1927 story and as a fairy tale-like moral melodrama, pregnant with lessons: Technology can be married to tradition; pride and humility are not necessarily opposites, and, in the flux of time, the old has to give in for the new and for the youth. The most surprising element of the film is its simplistic way of telling life's greatest truths. Enjoyable for everyone from 8-80 years, 'The Artist' brushes color on every age group, on many levels.

But does this one-and-a-half hour, old-fashioned but lively film really achieve the ideals it postulates? Well, a disappointing 'No' will be doing injustice to the film's writer-director Hazanavicius, and to the charisma of the leading pair. Hazanavicius chose to tell the story of a fallen actor of silent films who refused to pair with the sound technology of the time and on a parallel level, the story of a rising actress - the toast of the town - who could speak! Can these two reconcile? Even if the director doesn't want it, Time, the villain would want it.

Though the premise seems philosophical, Hazanavicius - who will compete against Scorsese at the Oscars next month - relies more on a style that has room for chick flick, slapstick and the surreal. There is a scene at the Kinograph Studio which fires its most bankable actor George Valentin who meets his co-star, Miss Peppy Miller on the stairs. George is descending and Peppy is ascending. Also, George's film is titled, 'The Lonely Star', where Peppy stars in 'The Guardian Angel'. The scenes of George and his companion dog (a delightful creature named Uggy) are melodramatic: George burns his film-canisters and faints in suffocation. The dog runs and brings a policeman in.

In dream-like scenes, George shockingly realizes that he has lost his voice. He hides from characters he acted who challenge him to come down. In another scene, George calls his shadow a loser. The shadow walks away from him amidst George's frenzied yell, to "get back here" (shown as a subtitle as they used to do in the silent film era).

'Beware of your pride, if I may say so sir. Miss Miller is a good person', reads the subtitle when George's former driver who now works with Miller says after George refused Miller's invitation to co-star with her. Miss Miller's goodness saves George and the story. ('If only you let me help you, George'). Perhaps it will save this year's Oscars and good cinema.
* a love letter to cinema is the director's expression.

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