What Is This Artist Movie That’s Winning All the Awards?

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The Weinstein Company

Jean Dujardin and Missi Pyle in The Artist

If you’ve paid even passing attention to end of the year lists/Academy Award prognostications, you’ve heard much about The Artist. It won a Best Picture prize at the Golden Globes and is guaranteed to be one of the 5-10 Oscar best picture nominees.

Chances are, though, that you probably haven’t been able to see it.

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The film, which has earned a mere $9.2 million domestically, has only opened in 216 U.S. theaters. That’s way less than the blockbuster Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, which as of this past weekend had the nation’s highest screen count (3,346), the indie films The Iron Lady (802 screens) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (886 screens), and even the 10- and 11-week running Tower Heist (260 screens) and Jack and Jill (298 screens).

As is often the case with end of the year prestige films, they roll out slowly — opening in Los Angeles and New York, after which they either a) creep into more and more screens or b) disappear for a month, having fulfilled the one-week run that allow them to qualify for the Oscars. (This weekend, for example, Coriolanus, which might nab Vanessa Redgrave a Best Supporting Actress nod, will open nationwide following a NY/LA run that began Dec. 2, as will the Michael Fassbender sex-addict film Shame.)

The Artist has done the same, opening Thanksgiving weekend on 4 screens, then expanding to 16, 17, 167 (on Christmas weekend), 172, and its current 216. On Jan. 20, it will expand to about 500 screens. Which means you’ll finally be able to catch it.

So what do you need to know before seeing the movie:

  • It’s silent. Duh! Everyone knows that, you say. Well, everyone does not know that. As reported by The Telegraph, “a small number of refunds” were offered to unaware Brits. For those of you who have never seen a silent movie, this means that the people don’t talk and there are no sound effects (save for one or two scenes). When people “talk,” the dialogue is presented in intertitles. The film does have a musical score, which we’ll mention later.
  • Like silent films from the early 20th century, the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means that the screen assumes the boxy outline of an old television set, as opposed to the widescreen picture seen in today’s theaters.
  • It’s in black and white. Though that’s sort of fudged. As we write in our review of the film, it was “shot by cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman in color and then monochromed in the lab.”
  • It co-stars an awesome dog named Uggie.
  • The Gallic team behind the film—director Michel Hazanavicius, Schiffman, composer Ludovic Bource and human stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo—have previously worked together on a pair of French spy spoofs. Bejo is Hazanavicius’ wife.
  • The film was shot in Los Angeles at a series of locations with Hollywood resonance: the Orpheum and Los Angeles theaters, the Bradbury Building (famous from several noir thrillers, Chinatown and as the gloomy setting for the end of Blade Runner), and even the former home of early film star Mary Pickford.
  • The film’s soundtrack is an expert pastiche of silent cinema film scores, save for one section in which a huge chunk of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo love theme is used to telegraph emotion during the film’s climactic scene. It’s one of the cinema’s most memorable piece of film music, so it sticks out in a fairly obvious way. Kim Novak, who starred alongside Jimmy Stewart in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film, was not very happy.

So go forth and watch this black and white silent film. Don’t be afraid. You’re not going to fall asleep, trust us.

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