The story is of George Valentin – a silent movie star in the 1920s – who must evolve or fade as talking pictures sound the death knell for his career. As his star falls, a chance encounter with aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) catapults her to stardom.
The Artist is a silent, black and white film, but don’t let that deter you. The film has touches of Sunset Boulevard as George struggles to hold onto his fame, and is definitely reminiscent of the great classical Hollywood musicals, in particular Singin’ In The Rain. The Artist was truly the breakout hit at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; the film was moved into Competition at the last minute and won over critics from around the world.
The idea of producing a silent film in this era of high technology is an interesting one. As James Cameron pushes the envelope with cutting edge 3D technology, director Michel Hazanavicius strips back his film making style, leaving the audience with the bare minimum, and creating a strong nostalgia for days gone by. This nostalgic air is helped by the broad romantic story and the clips from both Valentin and Miller’s work – scenes from films that could easily have been produced in the early days of Hollywood.
The film is shot in black and white, in the style of the classical Hollywood movies; think iris wipe transitions and complete focus on the leading actor’s faces. Hazanavicius uses the format to his benefit; Ludovic Bource’s European Film Award winning score beautifully conveys the emotion of the scenes and captures the essence of the 1920s, but it is in the moments of true silence that the film excels; an audience claps but the movie audience hears nothing, jarring against our expectations.
Jean Dujardin is charming, sweet and tugs at the heartstrings as George Valentin, and there is little doubt that he channelled the late, great Gene Kelly in his performance. Dujardin’s face tells the story of this tragic star whose refusal to adapt means that he loses everything. He exudes the charisma of an early movie star, and is utterly endearing. Here is a character the audience falls in love with and wills to succeed. Dujardin’s interactions with Jack – his canine co-star who won the Palme Dog at Cannes – are sweet and gentle, and their imitations of one another are hilarious and wonderful.
Equally charming is his foil and love interest, Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo. Bejo is luminous on screen and Hazanavicius’s focus on her face gives us some of the most emotionally satisfying cinema moments in a long time. John Goodman and Missi Pyle shine in their cameo roles, and the tender relationship between George and his driver, Clifton, is beautifully captured in glances by James Cromwell.
The Artist is a superbly crafted film that is not only engaging and thrilling, but it is a love letter to early cinema. In this time where technology is poised to take the place of storytelling, The Artist reminds audiences of why movies captured audiences in the first place. The film is a love story, a tragedy, and a comedy in one.
For a ‘silent’ movie, The Artist uses sound in a remarkable way; there is one scene in particular that conveys the turmoil that Valentin is suffering, through sound alone. The visual is equally as important and two scenes in particular are absolutely heartbreaking; Miller’s (Bejo) use of Valentin’s jacket as a prop (which in itself a nod to the 1927 film 7th Heaven) and Valentin’s (Dujardin) mourning of the life he has lost as he gazes on a tuxedo in a shop window. This film tells more though images than many films do through reams of dialogue.
Of course the idea that this is, in fact, a silent film is poked at throughout. In the opening scene, Valentin is ordered to ‘Speak!’ but remains silent, when complimented on his dog he quips (through dialogue cards) ‘If only he could talk!’ and he refuses to have a conversation with his wife as she announces that she is unhappy in the marriage. The twist is that our leads, these ‘Hollywood stars’, are actually French and Argentinean actors. Language is not a barrier in silent film, and this is where The Artist excels. It is only in the final frames of the film when George utters his only line with a thick French accent that the audience is let in on the joke.
In short, The Artist is a clever and entrancing piece of work. Both Dujardin and Bejo would not be out of place in a 20s film, in terms of their physical look and their skill. They never resort to ‘mugging’ to the camera to be understood, instead the story is told through their faces. Their chemistry is palpable and their love for their work shines through the screen. The supporting cast – most of them modern Hollywood stars – support their leading actors wonderfully; John Goodman is especially great as the cigar chomping studio executive, and there is a short cameo from Malcolm McDowell; a sly nod to Singin’ in the Rain via A Clockwork Orange. With The Artist, Hazanavicus has created something wonderful, elegant and beautiful. He hits every note, enthrals the audience and – like Scorsese did in Hugo – reminds us of the magic of cinema, and why we fell in love with the medium to begin with.
The Artist was to be tied for first place in my list of favourite films from 2011 – and has been my most talked about film since I saw it at Cannes in May – but with its release coming in early 2012, it will have to hold on for another year.