Monday, January 30, 2012


In 1927 silent movie actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has reached his zenith.  He’s beloved by fans for his charm and by studio boss Al Zimmer (a perfectly cast John Goodman) for his marquee value.  Aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) stumbles onto a photo opportunity with Valentin and secures an extra position on the star’s next film, which fails to please his wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).  But the movie business is about to change with the advent of sound.  Valentin adamantly refuses to make a talking picture and leaves the studio to produce and star in his next silent vehicle.  Meanwhile Peppy works her way up the cast tier and by embracing the new medium becomes a rising star.  As fate would have it the latest films of each open on the same day, with disastrous results for Valentin and instant stardom for Peppy.  The former star’s world collapses.  His wife leaves him, and only his chauffer (James Cromwell) and loyal dog (Uggie) remain.  After browbeating Zimmer with her freshly attained clout, Peppy proposes Valentin accept a role opposite her.  But the prideful Valentin refuses her charity and begins his downward spiral.  Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Guillaume Schiffman, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’ mostly silent film succeeds as a loving re-creation of the era.  His sharp, economic visual style and the expressive performances of his exquisite cast minimize the need for title cards.  Dujardin exudes the requisite charisma and finds moments of vulnerability beneath the façade.  Likewise Bejo hits all the right silent notes as a star who doesn’t forget her roots.  For the film’s first hour Hazanavicius fires on all cylinders, reveling in the nostalgic conceits of the period, and concocts a dream sequence that captures the film’s heart and soul.  But it misfires when the light tone turns tragic and Ludovic Bource’s quirky score becomes subsumed by that of Bernard Herrmann’s VERTIGO.  Valentin’s transformation into a self-pitying and self-destructive wretch diminishes his appeal nearly past caring.  But the film’s final scene brings us back from the abyss with an exuberant, redemptive dance number.

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