directed by Michel Hazanavicius
starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, and James Cromwell
Studio 37, La Petite, Warner
When the film world was silent, story flowed from images, and the occasional flash of text could clarify the finer points that didn’t scan well on screen. In that black-and-white world, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) rules Kinoscope studios – he upstages his wife and costar Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), sleeps with his perky Jack Russell terrier Uggie, and looks like the sort of guy who would wear a tux while mowing the lawn. At a publicity event, newcomer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) wrangles her way into his photo shoot and the front page of Variety and into a decent film career of her own. You expect adultery, but she only makes out with his overcoat, and this movie keeps its squeaky clean image all the way to George’s career crash-and-burn. Doris leaves because George is full of himself, Peppy makes the big time because she’s good, and George is lucky to have Uggie, and Clifton (James Cromwell) as his chauffeur, even when he has no car. Thank goodness George can tap dance and do a decent Buck and Wing when he gets a second chance.
Dujardin plays George with a genteel bonhomie and gleaming smile, and while he doesn’t get along with his wife, he doesn’t appear to have a mean bone in him. Ms. Bejo bubbles all over the screen, John Goodman is the jowly studio head with a heart of gold, and James Cromwell as the chauffeur is the model of discreet propriety you would hire to drive your Duesenberg, if you ever got one. But what really sells this picture is the cinematography. It’s black and white with subtle tones that telegraph the mood, and the camera work mixes Citizen Kane with the French New Wave and the iconography of Buster Keaton. While the scene shots are as static as an early Poverty Row film, the angles soar, and each scene is framed like a jewel. One brilliant scene shows a three-story staircase with extras running up and down, and in the chaos George walks down past a rising Peppy Miller. They pass, pause and turn, and while the symbolism may be blunt, it’s effective – he’s on his way down, she’s on her way up, and as he leaves the building across the street we see “The Lone Star Cafe.” In other words, there’s enough subtle stuff in the backdrop to keep you interested even after repeated viewings.
Film buffs will eat this up, and even their dates will stay engaged. This is one of the niftiest films of the season, and it’s shot like a movie from 100 years ago. Some styles are just timeless.