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Viewer Guide: “The Artist” and “The Vessel”

January 19, 2022 | Richard Peña


The Artist (2011).

This week’s double feature begins with The Artist, a 2011 silent film comedy-drama, written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. 

Set in 1927, The Artist recounts a fable-like tale of the waning days of Hollywood’s silent era, produced in the style and with the technology of the period. With plot elements reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, the film stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a Douglas Fairbanks-type matinee idol relishing the adulation at his latest movie premiere. At first, George’s accidental encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, seems like just another brush with a starstruck admirer. But Peppy makes the most of the moment’s incidental publicity to get inside the studio gates as an extra on George’s next movie. And when Peppy’s exuberance clashes with a studio boss played by John Goodman, George intervenes to keep her on the picture, a gentlemanly favor that serves to fan the flames of Peppy’s romantic feelings for him. Dismissing the arrival of “talking pictures” as laughable, George soon begins to suffer the consequences of his inability to see the future, doggedly hanging on to his glory days as he slides into destitution. But in true Hollywood style, Peppy repays her debt to George with a chance at a comeback in a glorious new genre just beginning to take the silver screen by storm. 

Also featured in supporting roles are James Cromwell as George’s loyal chauffeur, Penelope Ann Miller as his dissatisfied wife, and “Uggie”—George’s exceptionally talented canine co-star. 

French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius had wanted to make an homage to the silent film era for many years, finally gaining support for the idea after the success of his two OSS 117 spy-spoof comedies, also starring Jean Dujardin and his wife Bérénice Bejo. Taking some inspiration from the 1928 silent comedy Show People starring Marion Davies and William Haines, Hazanavicius also drew on the biographies of silent stars Douglas Fairbank and John Gilbert, whose careers both declined once the sound era began. Hazanavicius adapted some of the film’s memorable sequences from actual silent classics, including Peppy’s “coat embrace” which had appeared in the 1927 melodrama Seventh Heaven starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. And the film George is watching before he sets his apartment on fire is actually the 1920 Fairbanks’ film The Mark of Zorro, with close-ups of Fairbanks replaced by shots of Dujardin. The dance sequence finale required five months of rehearsal, and was shot in the same studio used by Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds for Singin’ in the Rain. The first contemporary silent film released by the studios since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie in 1976, The Artist was a huge sleeper success of 2011, becoming France’s most-honored film with a multitude of international prizes including ten Academy Award nominations and five wins, for Best Director, Actor and Picture. 


The Vessel (2016).

This week’s double feature continues with the 2016 drama The Vessel, written and directed by Julio Quintana. 

Set in an unnamed Latin American village, The Vessel explores the devastation—both physical and psychological—created by a tsunami that hit the area some ten years before, sweeping all the community’s school children out to sea. With most of the younger residents abandoning the town for the city, an unspoken baby prohibition has descended over the population. Despite the spiritual efforts of Father Douglas, played by Martin Sheen, the residents’ faith has been profoundly shaken, leaving most convinced that a permanent state of mourning—or denial of God—is the only way to commemorate such an especially cruel decimation. Yet when a young villager named Leo, played by Lucas Quintana, miraculously returns to life after a drowning accident, a stir of wonderment ripples through the village—might Leo be God’s messenger, and a sign that they have not been abandoned after all? And when Leo begins to build a strange makeshift structure, is he making real a divine grand plan? 

The Vessel’s husband and wife producing team of Julio and Marla Quintana met visionary director Terrence Malick while working on Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. When Julio Quintana shared his idea for a film about a near-death experience, Malick suggested Quintana send his script to Martin Sheen, who had famously suffered a heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now. Sheen quickly agreed to participate in the production with Malick coming on board as executive producer, which proved helpful during the film’s two-year fundraising period. With Julio Quintana’s musician-actor brother Lucas taking on the role of Leo, the bilingual cast allowed for the simultaneous production of Spanish and English language versions of the film. The La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, served as the film’s principal location, an area that has weathered many a devastating storm, including the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes of Irma and Maria in 2017. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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