THE DVD SHELF: "The Sting," "The Artist" and Chaplin's "The Gold Rush"

By Steven Suskin
01 Jul 2012

Cover art for "The Artist"
Speaking of films with a handful of Oscars, we can jump all the way to 2012. The most recent crop of Academy Awards included five for The Artist [Sony]. It pretty much speaks for itself when one film wins Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor categories combined. "The Artist" might presumably have taken Best Screenplay as well were it not an all-but-silent film. (They would surely have won a sixth Oscar for Title Writing, except that category was disbanded in 1928.)

"The Artist" is a valentine to Hollywood, specifically the Hollywood of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Not only does it take place in that mythical kingdom, with the art director recreating the world we see in films and newsreels of the period; the plot and characters themselves seem spun out of cherished memories, half-remembered (and in some cases, thoroughly remembered) and lovingly reproduced

The use of two memorable scenes from "Citizen Kane" — closely recreated — might seem questionable, as Welles made his film in 1941. As it turns out, they fit in wonderfully well. We get the emotion of the moments, which perfectly fit the action; but we are simultaneously flooded with warm feelings of nostalgia for "Kane," and Welles, and Hollywood altogether.

Director Michel Hazanavicius also has his music department borrow — as opposed to copy — Bernard Herrmann's Love Scene from Hitchcock's 1958 "Vertigo." Thus, we have a scene in "The Artist" — lovingly filched, as it is, from "A Star Is Born" — with an overlay of intense musical emotion suggesting the presence of Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, et all. Even viewers who don't know "Vertigo," and don't recognize the music, are likely to respond to the outside influences at play. All of this, many times over, makes "The Artist" the treat that it is.

But that's only part of the magic of "The Artist." That this Hollywood love story — born in Hollywood and mostly shot in Hollywood — should come from a French director and French star and French producer — seems unlikely; but everything about "The Artist" is unlikely, including its international success. If you do something well, I guess, the world comes to you.

Jean Dujardin in "The Artist."

Jean Dujardin makes a warm, friendly and sympathetic clown; he is the first Frenchman to win the Best Actor award, and not surprisingly. ("The Artist" is also the first French film to win Best Picture.) I was rather struck, though, by how strongly he reminds me of Fredric March; not just in the 1937 "A Star Is Born," upon the skeleton of which "The Artist" is clearly patterned, but several other March performances as well. This is presumably coincidental, or maybe not; it doesn't much matter, when the results are so ingratiating.

The story, by the way, tells of silent film star George Valentin, whose career disintegrates when sound comes in. He helps discover a new and younger star, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and then watches as her star ascends. Valentin eventually lands in the gutter, or thereabouts. The plot differs from "A Star Is Born" in that Valentin does not ultimately walk off into the Pacific, like Norman Maine did in the earlier film. Although if Norman Maine had a scene-stealing sidekick like Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier, he presumably would have been pulled out of the waves in the final reel.

Director/writer Hazanavicius clearly knows precisely what he is doing, and manages to pull it off with elan. Dujardin, for his part, is irresistible. The pair have worked together before, notably on the French spy spoof series "OSS 117." Dujardin's costar here, Berenice Bejo, played his leading lady in "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies"; in the interim, she married director Hazanavicius. Bejo makes a delightful heroine as the spunky — or rather, peppy — Peppy Miller. The dog Uggie is an expert comedian, as are John Goodman as the studio head and James Cromwell as the loyal valet.

Bonus features include a blooper reel; a Q&A with the filmmakers and cast; and the featurettes "The Artist: The Making of an American Romance" and "Hollywood as a Character: The Locations of The Artist." This year's Oscar-winning "The Artist," all in all, is a grand and glorious black & white treat.

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