December 27, 2011 -- A very retro black and white silent film is quite a novelty these days. Very few silent films like this have been made in recent years, among them, “The Call of Cthulhu” and of course Mel Brooks' “Silent Movie.” This one is quite derivitive, an example of a sort of genre of Hollywood-based films about films, with a plot reminiscent of such 1950s classics as “Singing in the Rain,” “A Star is Born,” “All About Eve” and “Sunset Blvd.” There is even a cute little dog, similar to Asta, of “The Thin Man” series of films.
The film opens with a film in a film. Both the film and the characters not on the screen are silent. In a play on the silent film theme, the star of the film, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin of “Ca$h”) has trouble communicating. He doesn't like to talk to people even when he is not on the screen. In some scenes of the movie, he seems to be deaf. In other scenes, he tries to speak, but can't. In one scene, Valentin can hear dogs bark and the sound of falling objects when they hit the floor, but can't hear himself speak.
Valentin opens the film as a big Hollywood star, but quickly runs into trouble when the silent era of films ends with the invention of sound combined with film, the “talkies.” At the same time, he literally bumps into a young girl who is destined to become a star of the talkies, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo of “A Knight's Tale”). Valentin gives Miller a break, allowing her to get into the movie business. Her career takes off at the same time his is sinking. Valentin refuses to act in the talkies and his life quickly falls apart. His wife divorces him. He loses his house. He is on the skids.
Miller is now a big star, but she has long been in love with Valentin. She tries to help him, but Valentin's pride causes him to resist her help. Valentin needs to come to terms with the way the world has changed. If this plot seems familiar, it should be. This sort of show business-based story has been done many times, except for the novelty of the silent treatment. There are a couple of scenes where some human voices are heard. In one of them Valentin speaks, and I noticed his French accent. It is a reminder that one of the advantages of silent films is that they are more universal in their appeal than films with spoken dialog. The language of film is universal, while individual spoken languages are not. In fact, that was one of the arguments against the talkies when they first appeared in 1929.
The film is also presented in black and white. Some have argued that black and white is superior to color film because most people dream in black and white. Not many films are made in black and white these days, and most of those that are made in black and white are “art films.” This however, is not your average art film because it is actually entertaining. It is not heavy, it is light and funny, with some dramatic overtones. This is a good film. Not great, but good. It rates a B.
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