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Oscar Favorite 'The Artist' a Silent Antidote to Modern Cynicism

It’s got everything against it:

1) It’s a silent movie 2) in black and white 3) with no-name lead actors, 4) no special effects, 5) a title that oozes pretension, 6) … and it’s French! And now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has to come along and drive the final nail in the coffin, nominating it for 10 Oscars.

Add up all these ingredients and you have the perfect recipe for the dullest, snootiest movie ever, right? That’s the trouble with selling people on “The Artist.”

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Normal, non-pretentious people, that is, who don’t think sitting through a black and white movie is a badge of honor, like an artistic Purple Heart (the snob’s version of “taking one for the team”: watching a long, boring movie so you can tell your friends about it).

And that title? It should have been called “The Comedian.” Or “The Entertainer.” Anything but “The Artist” (that’s “Artiste” in French — mon Dieu!).

How does one convince normal people to see “The Artist?” What if I told you that it scored a 97 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Nah?

Critics say it is the most likely nominee to take home the golden statuette. Bookies picked it as the odds-on favorite.

Still not interested?

That’s too bad. Because snooty title and lack of sound aside, it’s easily the best movie of the year — and the most entertaining.

Yes, a silent, black-and-white, French movie is more entertaining than the biggest special-effects blockbusters of the year. Even though it hearkens back to a style of film more than 80 years out of date, “The Artist” is the freshest, most original movie experience you are likely to have.

Funny thing is, what makes “The Artist” such a breath of fresh air isn’t the lack of sound or color. It’s the absence of cynicism.

Snarky cynicism has taken hold of our culture like a face-hugger from the “Alien” franchise, planting embryos of despair and nihilism in our bodies to fester and grow until they emerge from our chests (and the chest-bursters’ faces are plastered with smirks reminiscent of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert).

“The Artist” is a time machine to a simpler era — before cynicism had permeated the mainstream, when the movies didn’t try to tear down the values of their audiences or sucker-punch them with political messages from out of left field.

The Artist” trades the contemporary entertainer’s jaded smirk for an infectious grin. That’s the simple secret to its success. Its only agenda is to entertain. How revolutionary!

It does so by revealing to us the human spirit in all its elastic glory — its low points, but mostly its peaks. There is an underlying theme of man contending with changing technology, which couldn’t be more timely in the Age of the iPod/iPhone/iPad/iCloud, and thankfully it doesn’t conclude on a Luddite note.

One wonders whether the critics would have accepted “The Artist’s” old-fashioned virtues without the silent-movie gimmick. The art-house movie trappings gave the critics “permission” to embrace it. Set such a story in modern-day Hollywood, with contemporary spoken dialogue and in color, and they’d snort in derision.

But by pleasing the critics, “The Artist’s” creators risked alienating mainstream audiences — which would be a shame, since it is aimed straight at the sweet-spot of mainstream America.

The film is set in late ’20s Hollywood, the waning days of the silent-movie era, the plot a mash-up of “A Star is Born” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” The main character is George Valentin, a popular silent-movie star, portrayed by the amazingly expressive and captivating Jean Dujardin (justly favored to win this year’s Best Actor Oscar), a beefier, more comedic version of Gene Kelly.

Along comes the aptly named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a sassy wannabe actress with a big crush on the charming (and charmed) Valentin. So you see, it’s a love story as well as a comedy. Or rather, it’s two love stories: one between Valentin and Peppy Miller, and the other between them both and Hollywood. The supporting cast includes actors more familiar to American audiences such as Penelope Miller, James Cromwell, and John Goodman (who would have made a fabulous silent-era comedian).

Of course, the native languages of the various actors are irrelevant, since the movie has no spoken dialogue (though there is one fascinating sequence that uses actual sound in a very creative way). The jaunty musical soundtrack picks up the slack, and it’s such a delight that it helps you forget there’s no spoken dialogue.

Instead, the actors must express themselves through their faces, actions, and situations. It takes tremendous talent and charm to pull this off, and the cast have more than enough of each to rivet your attention for 100 minutes. I normally despise dancing in movies (second only to silence), but the brief bouts of tap-dancing in “The Artist” are so invigorating and so integral to the story that I actually looked forward to them.

I urge everyone not to wait until it comes out on home video but to watch this movie in a theater with an audience. I guarantee that it is the most unusual movie-going experience you will ever enjoy — better than 3D, dare I say. To watch the actors on the big screen enthrall us without any dialogue – no sound except for that charming movie music – well, I repeat, it has to be experienced for yourself, and in a theater.

As the movie opens, there’s a delicious anticipation in the quiet theater filled with other quiet people. Funny stuff starts happening, and you’re waiting to see, er, hear who will be the first to break the silence and laugh out loud. When a human voice finally shatters that quiet with a chuckle or a guffaw, there is a sense of relief all around. And as if a dam burst, everyone is soon laughing uproariously together.

Without the frenzy of special effects on the screen, and without loud dialogue and explosions to mask their own obnoxiousness, The Artist almost shames audience members into refraining from talking out loud or studying their smart phones. The hush makes you feel like you’re in a church rather than a strip-mall multiplex. In its own orbit, at least, “The Artist” has single-handedly revived the vanishing joy of communal movie-watching.

I can’t wait to buy it on Blu-ray, but I feel sorry for anyone who watches “The Artist” for the first time at home. Without an audience and with all of the distractions of modern life, you simply won’t get the full benefit of the experience.

I have a theory about “The Artist” The lead actor is a popular French star. I imagine that he wanted to become a star in America. But he was told that his English isn’t good enough and his accent too thick (listen to him in interviews and you can sense that he lacks confidence in his English, though it’s not as bad as he seems to think it is).

How to share his enormous talent with American audiences without speaking English well? Why, make a silent comedy, that’s how! I don’t have any evidence to support this. But it’s my theory. You can share it if you want.

It’s odd that it took a team of French filmmakers to reintroduce America to the pleasures of old-fashioned Hollywood movies. Here’s hoping that Hollywood thanks them on Oscar night.

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