CERT TBA, 100 MINS If you had said to me at the start of this year that the film of 2011 would be a black-and-white silent movie then I would have politely suggested you go and seek medical help. Yet if that little exchange had taken place, I would now be tracking you down and issuing a full and unreserved apology.
In a year in which some superb films have graced our cinemas, including Senna, Cave of Forgotten reams and Snowtown, we have had to wait until the very last minute to see the one that, in my humble opinion, tops the lot: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist.
Having picked up rave reviews at films festivals the world over throughout 2011, The Artist comes weighed down by a considerable burden of expectation. Yet this is one of those rare occasions when the hype is more than justified, as it is quite simply one of the most joyful films that I’ve seen for a long time.
This is the story of the end of the silent film era, the moment when “the talkies” took over and changed cinema forever. Daringly, Frenchman Hazanavicius creates his own silent film to tell his tale and this bold gamble pays off handsomely.
The film is set in the 1920s in Hollywood (or Hollywood Land as we see the sign in the hills still reading). The artist of the title is George Valentin (played brilliantly by Jean Dujardin), a debonair silent film star with a twinkling smile and a perfect pencil moustache. His performances might be totally over-the-top but fans flock to Valentin’s premieres and he is, of course, more than happy to court the attention of his many female devotees, despite the frosty reception he receives at home from his wife.
Valentin soon takes young actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), under his wing, finding a role for her in his latest film, A German Affair. But just as love looks to blossom between the pair, the era of sound arrives and Valentin and Peppy’s respective worlds are turned upside down. She is handpicked to be one of the stars of the new medium, while he is unceremoniously dumped by the studio boss (John Goodman) who previously feted him.
Our hero does his best to stay to true to his art, shooting, financing and starring his own silent film. Predictably, things don’t go according to plan. In one scene of his new picture Valentin sinks slowly into quicksand, and it’s an apt metaphor for how his career is going. As audiences flock to cinemas to catch the new talking pictures and Peppy Miller becomes a star, Valentin loses everything, even having to sack his loyal butler.
Yet thankfully, as this is a warmhearted melodrama, it isn’t long before Miller reappears in Valentin’s life and sets about trying to help him to make a come-back. Does she succeed? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you.
In choosing to create a silent film, appropriately shot in black and white, Hazanavicius was running the risk of favouring gimmick over sincerity. Yet within five minutes any concerns I had about the director’s decision were dispelled.
The Artist easily settles into its rhythm, telling its story with more clarity than you get in most dialogue-heavy films. Hazanavicius also makes a wise choice in keeping the laughs coming and, while his love for the 1920s and its films is obvious, he is also not averse to playing the odd postmodern trick to elicit them: a terrific nightmare sequence is a particularly special moment.
Principal performers Dujardin, Bejo and Goodman take brilliantly to the silent format. Dujardin is particularly good charting the descent of Valentin from the heights of stardom to the depths of despair. In the early stages of the film he perfectly encapsulates his charac ter’s caddish charm. Yet as the twinkle in his eye fades and the moustache grows bushier he manages to locate genuine pathos in Valentin’s fall from grace.
These performances mesh brilliantly with Hazanivicius’s meticulous production design, which ensures that the look of the film perfectly encapsulates the 1920s, and the music that, in traditional style, underscores the action is also pitch-perfect.
While The Artist tells a very human story, it is also a love letter to the enduring and ever-evolving phenomenon that is the cinema – not only the silent era of the early part of the 20th century. For that reason it is unsurprising that film critics have been so enamoured with it. I just hope the public is not put off by the fact that The Artist is a silent movie and take it to their hearts as well, because this masterpiece deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.