★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This was my most anticipated film of the year, hands down. Ever since I first heard about this movie during its screening at Cannes, I have been anxiously awaiting the local release. I’m extremely happy to report that, even despite my incredibly high expectations for this movie, it did not disappoint.
The story begins in 1927, near the height of technical and artistic achievement in silent motion pictures, chronicling the success of matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). His movies are known and loved the world over and his off stage charisma and antics are always front page news. After the screening of one of his latest films, a young aspiring starlet in the audience accidentally bumps into him as he is getting photos taken outside the theatre. At first embarrassed and scared of how Valentin will react, she immediately lightens up when he begins to laugh and let’s the photogs take several snapshots of them both. The next morning, those photos are front page news, and the young woman, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), makes her way to the studio to try and get some work. At Valentin’s insistence, she is hired on as an extra. After the day’s shoot, she visits him in his dressing room and they nearly share a romantic moment before being interrupted by Valentin’s chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell). With the advent of sound, Valentin’s studio, Kinograph (a take on famous monikers like Biograph), move in new directions. Valentin, like many silent stars of the day, refuse to accept the new medium and, after being dropped from Kinograph, begins to write, direct and shoot his next film, Tears of Love, himself, funding out of pocket. With the stock market crash following on the heels of the disappointing reviews and returns of Tears of Love, Valentin is broke, dried up and desperate. In contrast, however, young Peppy Miller has made a meteoric rise to fame in the new talkie medium.
In conjunction with the story itself, the film takes many liberties to authenticate it to the time in cinema history in which it is presenting. The film is shot in black-and-white (well, color converted to black and white in DI for all you DPs that need to know exactly), it is 95% silent, shot in Academy ratio (1.33:1, essentially squared as was standard before the 1950s) and recorded at 18 frames per second to elicit the common motion difference we sense between many silents as compared to modern films. Though, again, for you purists, this motion deception was not because of the films themselves, as much as with projection measures today being at 24fps, whereas common frame rate in the early part of cinema was dictated at 16fps; however, since films were hand cranked by the cameramen, the fps actually fluctuated a bit between 12 and 20 most of the time depending on the action on screen. Anyway, in short, this movie did all it could do to authenticate the look and feel of classic Hollywood cinema. It turned out to be an endearing and perfect choice for the story, and not at all a gimmicky or satirical take on the perception of silent cinema.
The acting, since the film was silent, was more about body language than anything else. Everything had to be visual and the actors were made to express much more through actions and facial expressions than anything else. Again, it was a natural ode to silent cinema and the long lost art of pantomime. The way Dujardin and Bejo interacted and expressed emotions physically was breathtaking and captured the magic of some of silent cinema’s greatest actors and actresses precisely. Largely, Valentin’s character was modeled after such stars of the 1920s like Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, where, in turn, Miller’s part was very much Garbo-esque (even the line “I want to be alone” famously appears in the film!). Their performances, one without any lines and the other with one single solitary line, were breathtaking. So far in my journey through this year’s Oscar nominees, these two are my picks for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. A special note needs to be given to Uggie the dog as well, who expertly played his supporting role of Jack the Dog – if only a non-human could get a Best Supporting Actor nod!
In the technical arena, in addition to the shooting standards mentioned earlier, this film was just seamlessly well-made. Guillaume Shiffman’s classic hard light approach to the cinematography was fantastic, absolutely beautiful. Nearly every frame of this film I could easily see myself hanging a still on the wall of my house and being pleased; then again, however, I love classic Hollywood era lighting. I think it is classy and sharp, and even more than that, I’ve always had a soft spot for black and white cinematography. To me, black and white helps suspend my disbelief more than color; it creates somewhat of an alternate reality that I can accept more as a totally different world than color, which so closely resembles our own. I know every film doesn’t call for the use of black and white, but this one certainly benefited and I’m always happy to see well shot black and white footage on the screen. As for the direction, Michel Hazanavicius did a phenomenal job. There were many beautifully framed and interesting shot selections throughout and several scenes that helped convey Valentin’s emotions through a creative addition of some sound work.
In conclusion, I loved this film, everything about it. I loved that it was silent, that it was black and white, the costume design, the acting, the story, the direction, the great cinematography, the precise art direction in creating 1920s Hollywood, the fact that it was an ode to silent cinema which I adore, and how heartfelt so many of the scenes were. This was a brilliant movie. I loved Hugo nearly as much, but I have to go on the record to say that this film will be my pick for Best Picture for this year, at least so far.
I’ve currently seen six out of the nine nominees this year for Best Picture and don’t see any of three I have yet to see usurping this pick. Actually, I have two left to see – War Horse and The Descendants, because I refuse to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because I hate when crap like that gets on the nominee list. It’s been destroyed by critics, I didn’t like the director’s past films and it just comes across as Oscar fodder we-love-Scott Rudin crap, and for that I boycott it.