The Artist's sound of silence

The silent movie with awards buzz hits Tampa Theatre this week.

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There just aren’t many movies nowadays that you could call an instant classic.

Then comes The Artist.

The silent movie (with a few strategic moments of sound) has the sweeping nostalgia of a bygone era, the romance of black and white, authentic settings, gorgeous costumes and a breathtaking soundtrack; not to mention an impressive cast of familiar names and not-so-familiar foreigners — among them, its two leads, whose on-screen chemistry rivals Hepburn and Tracy and Bogie and Bacall.

The story starts with a film within a film, panning out to a breathtaking shot of a lavish film premiere, a silent movie starring George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who's being held prisoner. The film's first word, on its first panel, is spoken by one of Valentin's captors, who urges him to "talk!", followed by crazy elecro-shock that zaps the screen. The command is an ominous and symbolic foreshadowing of Valentin's struggles to come.

Other on-screen sparks come from Valentin and the object of his desire, Peppy (Berenice Bejo). He bumps into the ingenue on the set a few days after briefly making her acquaintance (no spoilers). Valentin invites her to be his partner in a dance scene, and the two become so distracted and taken with one another that they keep fouling up, take after take, laughing at one another and trading awkward glances. It's a tender and subtly evocative snapshot of new love. Pure magic.

As with all boy-meets-girl stories, there's a catch. Valentin is married. Also, add to that the tension that arises from Valentin's downward spiral as the talkies take over. Valentin must eat humble pie as he witnesses Peppy's star on the rise.

Dejected, he wanders the streets, seeing photos of her with her trademark penciled-in beauty mark (a gimmick that he suggested). He stops to gaze through a store window at a tuxedo bust and through the reflection, he sees his head on the torso, a vision of his glorious past, and slips into fantasy mode for a few seconds. Soon after, a cop tells him to scram. The tenderly heart-rending scene recalls the wistful pretend moments of Chaplin movies.

As with the brilliant window scene — windows are used cleverly throughout the film — writer/director Michel Hazanavicius uses shadows, reflections and other camera tricks to take us inside the distraught mind of Valentin as his career and identity crumble. Dujardin blesses the stunningly handsome Valentin with dashing charm and pathos — and has great scenes with a nimble Jack Russell terrier and the loyal butler Clifton, played with poignant dignity by Oscar shoo-in James Cromwell. (What is it about kind but stoic butlers in movies?)

Argentinean Bejo, Hazanavicius’ wife in real life, has that rare combo of allure and likability. She has a slightly oversize grin like Carol Burnett that adds humor and sympathetic character to her Latin bravura. John Goodman turns in a great performance as a gruff movie mogul, and Penelope Ann Miller is fantastic despite her scripted two-dimensional portrayal of Valentin’s wife, a cliched throwback to the ol’ ball and chain. A couple of minor anachronisms include a fist-pull-in-the-air gesture and the word “loser,” a colloquialism that didn’t take hold until the 1950s.

At first glance it might seem that the characters are drawn in broad strokes with the affectation of retro caricature, but Hazanavicius (a Frenchman who emerges with brilliance from a negligible background) has an eye for simplicity, subtlety and beautiful moments. He uses the format of silent films as an intriguing framework for storytelling and audacious directorial choices, and the result is cinematic poetry.

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