The Artist: A Review
The Artist – Dir: Michel Hazanavicius; *ing: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller
Words are cheap. The biggest thing you can say is ‘elephant’ – Charles Chaplin
Forget Avatar, forget Inception, forget the avalanche of 3D fare that seems to have engulfed us lately; want to see a truly modern film? Then look no further than The Artist, which, in turning the clock back to an earlier, ‘simpler’ time in moviemaking, has in fact, created something far more complex and intriguing than its stylistic and narrative premise would imply. Consider this: films have not been silent now for over eighty years, so it’s presumably safe to say that the overwhelming majority of today’s movie audiences have never experienced silent cinema, other than film students and classical movie buffs. So, in essence, The Artist, which is not only in glorious black & white but is also, more importantly, a silent film, is for most something they’ve never seen before. And this is what makes French filmmaker Hazanavicius’ jettisoning of spoken dialogue from the film more than just a cynical gimmick or conceit; it invites the modern film audience to experience something entirely new, albeit by employing cinema’s oldest technique. Film, after all, was first and foremost a visual medium (that set it apart from radio, for example) and The Artist takes it back to what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as ‘pure cinema’, i.e. “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”
In setting the film in Hollywood itself and that too in 1927, when the advent of sound into cinema with the success of The Jazz Singer would sound the death knell for silent films, The Artist (which is actually French-produced) both echoes and pays homage to Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the classic musical that took a comical look at the period of upheaval that followed this event. So it is surely divine coincidence that The Artist’s lead actor Jean Dujardin bears a striking resemblance to that film’s co-director and star, Gene Kelly. And like Kelly’s character, Don Lockwood, Dujardin’s cinematic alter-ego, George Valentin, is also a matinee idol of the silent screen in the Douglas Fairbanks mould, whose inability to deal with the demands of the suddenly transformed medium lead to disaster. But where Singin’ dealt with its subject with straight up humour, The Artist does so with old-fashioned pathos, pulling us into Valentin’s downward spiral, as he loses his money, career, friends and self-esteem. But cinematic darkness always has a counterpoint, and here it takes the form of effervescent starlet-turned-star Peppy Miller (Bejo), who has carried a torch for the fallen idol ever since a brief encounter between the two in his heyday. Can Peppy’s love bring Valentin back from the brink? And even if it can, is it enough to redeem him in his own eyes?
The beauty of The Artist’s story, simple though it is, lies in its telling; because there is no dialogue to listen to or, dare I say, be distracted by, we are free to marvel at the visuals which are nothing if not sheer enchantment. The director’s decision to shoot the film in the 1.33:1 ‘Academy ratio’ just as in silent-film days, is beautifully complemented by the velvety black &whites of Guillaume Schiffman’s stunning cinematography. But of course there is much more to it than just pretty pictures; Hazanavicius creates moments of pure poetry on film with a series of masterfully written and acted sequences that take us into the thick of a time and place long forgotten, accompanied by Ludovic Bource’s enthralling background score. The narrative structure also allows us to become completely absorbed with the main characters who, as essayed by the devastatingly charming Dujardin, and the equally splendid Bejo, are so very much of their time and yet somehow also utterly timeless.
Needless to say, The Artist’s old-world appeal will not be to everyone’s jaded taste, but for many of us, the answer to the question ‘But can a silent film really work in this day and age?’ is, in a word, oui!
Cult: Silent Movie (1976) – Mel Brooks’ audacious little comedy featured a cameo by legendary mime Marcel Marceau, who also uttered the only word spoken in the entire film.
Current: Hugo – Martin Scorsese’s lyrical love letter to the magic of the movies is one of 2011’s best.
Coming Attraction: Alfred Hitchcock & the Making of Psycho (2013) – Sir Anthony Hopkins will star as the Master of Suspense in Sacha Gervasi’s chronicling of the production of the first modern slasher flick.