Dir. Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium, 2011, 100 mins
Review by Carol Allen
Hazanavicius’s film tells the story of silent movie star George Valentin (Dujardin), whose career disappears with the advent of the talkies, and it is made as – a silent movie. Black and white, 4:3 ratio, intertitles for the sparse dialogue and a lush and very period score by Ludovic Bource. OK, you’re not going to get the music live in the cinema, as you would in the twenties, but don’t be picky.
Valentin is a star in the mould of John Barrymore or Douglas Fairbanks – handsome, smooth dark hair and cute little moustache. In 1927 his career is at its height, which is when he first meets budding young actress Peppy Miller (Bejo). Then the talkies arrive on the scene. As the rest of Hollywood, including his producer (Goodman), embraces the exciting new technique of sound, Valentin refuses to even try to go with the new flow. As his roles dry up and his wife leaves him, he invests his fate in a new silent movie “Tears of Love” – and it flops. Meanwhile Peppy’s career goes from strength to strength and she in turn becomes the superstar. Their paths occasionally cross and although Valentin’s stubborn pride makes him resist her offers of help and indeed love, we know that somehow Hazanavicius and the tradition of the movies will get them together in the final reel – which incidentally is a joyous tribute to Fred and Ginger.
This film is totally charming in a completely unsentimental way. Dujardin as Valentin, looks really right for the period and his fall from stardom and touching descent into despair and poverty show us how a silent movie actor could touch the audience’s emotions without the use of spoken dialogue. Beho is not only pretty and looks lovely in the clothes of the period, but is a good actress and I defy you to not fall in love with the third star of the film, Valentin’s loyal Jack Russell terrier, who co-stars in his movies and sticks by his master through thick and thin.
While staying faithful to the silent movie conventions for most of its length, the film does on a couple of occasions use sound effects very sparingly and imaginatively to make an effective narrative point. Otherwise the soundtrack is down to Bource’s very evocative score and some songs from the period. There are echoes in the story of A Star is Born and Singing in the Rain but the telling of it is totally original, giving us a feel in the twenty first century of what the movie experience at that time must have been like, including effective shots in the early part of the film of the audience in the ornate auditoria of the time, totally enthralled by Valentin’s movies. Plus an edge of the seat sequence in true silent movie tradition of the Jack Russell saving his master’s life.