In a year that saw 2 movies released about great female icons of the 20th Century, we also watched 2 films focused on Cinema’s foundation years going head to head at the Oscars. While Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (read the review) embedded its cinematic history in a family fantasy, The Artist can be described most simply as a silent movie about silent movies. That may sound horribly pretentious, but in reality The Artist – the big winner at Sunday’s Academy Awards – doesn’t feel ostentatious or arty at all. Admittedly the film’s unusual, throwback format may put off a lot of people, but they’re missing out on an utterly charming, and technically brilliant, tribute to an era that’s alien to most modern cinemagoers.
Set over several years, from the mid-1920s to the early 30s, The Artist centres on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a debonair film star – modelled blatantly on Douglas Fairbanks – who has made a name for himself as a swashbuckling action hero. He also has an adorable Jack Russell sidekick (Uggie). Unfortunately for Valentin though, times and tastes are changing, and when the “Talkies” arrive, the fickle public are quick to abandon the old silent movie stars for a new generation of performers. The latter is embodied by Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a feisty young actress who feels indebted to Valentin after he helped launch her career. The 2 actors continually cross paths but while Peppy’s star is on the rise, George’s is on the wane. The big question, ultimately, is whether George will find success again or, in the years of the Great Depression, be sucked under by his despair.
Although The Artist is for the most part a tale of declining fortunes, the 100-minute film is refreshingly upbeat and energetic. Unlike so many other movies focused on the film industry, there’s no sycophantism and backstabbing here. The cast is stuffed with decent characters demonstrating real loyalties. Valentin may be vain and proud, but he’s also a highly charismatic, likeable guy with allies who stick by him – like his valet Clifton (James Cromwell). Valentin wallows in his sense of abandonment at times but the film makes clear that he has many allies who want to help him.
Admittedly the plot of The Artist is predictable if you know anything about the typical fate of Silent Era film stars. Along with a couple of pacing lags, it’s the film’s only real flaw however. As already mentioned, The Artist is a captivating film. And a good chunk of cerebral pleasure comes from the film’s meticulous mimicry of silent movies, right down to the screen resolution used. Shot entirely in black and white, the only dialogue in The Artist is gleaned from lip-reading and maybe 20 screens of titling. That probably sounds daunting to some viewers but it’s fascinating to see how writer-director Michel Hazanavicius and his cast have embraced the challenge of telling a story without words, utilising the methods of the first filmmakers.
As an aside, I’m personally a big fan of verbal silence in films (consider the potency it added to Drive last year). It’s better for things to be understated than expressed via the painfully banal and lazy dialogue that Mainstream Hollywood so often dumps on us today.
Anyway, in terms of The Artist’s powerful sense of authenticity, it really helps that the film’s 2 leads are largely unknown outside of their native France. There are several familiar faces in The Artist’s supporting cast – look out for John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle and Malcolm McDowell – but Dujardin and Bejo could be stars from the 1920s (who history has evidently forgotten). Bejo makes a sassy, starry-eyed flapper but the film is really Dujardin’s, and he’s fantastic – completely deserving of his Best Actor Oscar.
Without dialogue, an actor’s facial expressions and physical performance become even more important. Dujardin not only demonstrates effortless versatility and elegance in regards to his movements but, just as importantly, he has the same striking body type as the male movie stars of an earlier age – tall and broad chested, with a dazzling, slightly roguish smile. He’s Errol Flynn or the Golden Age Superman… This said, for all his physical presence, Dujardin still has every shared scene stolen by his canine co-star.
In the end, The Artist rides high upon its likeability and polished craftsmanship in all departments. The film currently risks being over-hyped, but given time for its reputation to settle it’s sure to emerge as a classic feel-good tale about pride and second chances. And it’s well worth watching now on the big screen to experience its full impact.
The Artist opens in South Africa on 16 March.
Last Updated: March 1, 2012