Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Casting and the Artist

Nostalgia is always popular in cinema, and The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) certainly capitalizes on that. Set during the transition to talking films, the film highlights the ever-changing nature of art and how artists are voiceless -- figuratively and, here, literally -- to stop it. With the rising influence of streaming internet video, piracy, and mobile technology, the question of the artist's voice could not come at a more appropriate time. While the story has been told time and again, the true genius of this picture is its casting. Star Jean Dujardin (George Valentin) exudes classic Hollywood star quality. His performance is highly reminiscent of Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. From the signature smile to the charming dance moves and charm, Dujardin bares more than a passing resemblance to the classic Hollywood star.
The Artist

Relatively unknown outside of his native France, Dujardin was able to fully embrace the role of Valentin without the celluloid baggage of a well-known American career. If a better known star had filled the role, we would be pondering, "How does George Clooney's career parallel Valentin's?" or "Wow, Brad Pitt is a lot older than I thought he was." Instead, we are able to be fully immersed in history without the burden of modern cinema.

Although Dujardin is a fresh face in Hollywood, the film does feature many familiar names. Perpetual second fiddle Missi Pyle also harkens back to Singin' in the Rain with her performance as Lina Lamont-style diva Constance. John Goodman was born to play a sleazy Hollywood executive. Despite the film's silence, you can still perfectly imagine Goodman's trademark voice booming through the speakers as he grins and smokes giant cigars. Popular actors James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell also lend their capable expressions to the cast. And, of course, it goes without saying that Uggie delivers the best canine performance of the year.

My one complaint about the film is the casting of Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller. The young Miller is a rising star who becomes a box office sensation. Unfortunately, Bejo's performance is missing the star-quality that her character supposedly possess. She has neither the screen siren sex appeal of Jean Harlow or the spunk and moxy of Katharine Hepburn. While Miller almost has the can-do-good-girl essence of Ginger Rogers, she is ultimately a flat character who does not possess clues to be easily located within the historical context. Instead, she is more of an avatar for the viewer to participate in the film, to attempt to rescue Valentin from himself. In this regard, her performance is satisfactory (if still a bit empty). Despite this, The Artist lives up to its promise of showing the artistry of Hollywood with a wink and a nod.

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