Friday, June 19, 2015

Birthday Take: Jean Dujardin in "The Artist" (2011)

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Jean Dujardin
Born: June 19, 1972 (43 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (won) as George Valentin

The Take

In 2011, The Artist won Best Picture. It was a film that seemed to be everywhere. Nobody could escape the magic of it to the point that Uggie even had his own autobiography. Still, the update on silent film has fallen into an odd reputation. Is it a masterpiece that proves that actions can be more powerful than words? Is it just actors mugging for a camera? Is it a reflection of how much The Academy loves itself that it rewards its first silent film Best Picture winner since the late 30's with Wings? There's truth in all of this, but for those who want to just write it off, I suggest giving it a fair shake because while it may be a very specific type of movie, it does its job to such an effective degree that for a moment, the nostalgia overwhelms you and it feels like anything is possible again.

A large reason is because of Jean Dujardin. While the cast is pretty strong, one cannot deny that there was something to the actor. He had the silent movie star shtick down. He could dance and make slight movements into comedic charm. In fact, his slow progression into irrelevance is perfectly matched by his performance, which manages to evolve from a very clearheaded individual to one so wrought with thought that it may pass over some viewers' head. There's a lot of contribution also from the brilliant score, which cues the emotional beats more effectively. Still, for a man whose life crumbles at the start of Hollywood's talkies era, it is quite something to watch him go from happy to sad to redemptive. There's a shtick to it, but no more than what's necessary to make this feel like an authentic period film.

It is something that I feel gets overlooked more than the film's actual quality. Director Michel Hazanavicius is gifted at making a film feel appropriately in a genre. Before this, he made two films in the OSS 117 series that turned James Bond spy culture into a spoof. Here, he manages to use a camera technique that was very fitting of the time. He didn't use zooms and the film was selective of how it used sound. There's entire passages that break silent film style in order to indicate shifting styles and the bigger story about how an artist finds his voice. The gimmick is obvious, but when effectively executed it can help to bring more of an impact to the entire film. Thankfully it is present here.

Many will make the very dumb argument that Dujardin has faded into obscurity following this film. Even Oscar host Seth MacFarlane jokes about it in 2013, a mere two years later. The reality is that he has been working. He was in The Wolf of Wall Street for a memorable role. While he hasn't done much of a high profile in America, he has done several smaller films in his home country of France. It seems premature to call him a one hit wonder, especially since The Artist's success does feel like somewhat of its own fluke. It was a silent film that made the idea of modern silent films seem more possible. Part of me still wishes that both him and the film style would come back every now and then, if just to shake up cinema and remind us of its rich history.

But for now The Artist remains such an odd Best Picture winner. It isn't because it was a silent film, but that everyone seems to dislike it. While there's argument to be made that there could have been other winners that year, it seems wrong to chastise a film that is so authentic and assured in its voice that it can tell a story without spoken dialogue. Even then, Dujardin's performance is both wrenching with charisma and perfectly recalls the icons of which he references. This is a film that updates silent films and makes the production design more beautiful. It may not be the best silent film, but considering how few are made, it is one of the pest of the past 50 or so years (Mel Brooks' Silent Movie maybe beats it). 

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