The Artist – a review

9 01 2012

Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Michel Hazanavicius

There may well be a more charming and entertaining film to start the new year with than Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, but right now it’s difficult to think of one offhand. Since premièring at Cannes last year, a seemingly unstoppable head of critical and commercial steam has been building behind this effortlessly light and imaginative comedy, with many talking up its chances as a contender in February’s Oscars.

The Artist takes us back to the glory days of silent Hollywood, and into the life of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a handsome, moustachioed and ever-so-slightly ridiculous hero of big screen action and swashbuckling films, somewhat in the mould of Douglas Fairbanks.

We first encounter George at a screening of his latest film, as he, a starlet and his cigar-chomping producer, played by John Goodman (a man born to play a cigar-chomping producer), wait behind the screen to eavesdrop on the audience’s reaction.

It’s at this point that the central conceit of the film comes into play. As the music accompanying the film-with-the-film comes to an end, we’re flung into genuine silence. The assembled players and producers listen eagerly for the anticipated applause and then, we see from their reactions (but not from the soundtrack), they hear it. Soon a second silent movie score is struck up, this time accompanying the film that we’re watching. The Artist is both a film about silent movies and a silent movie itself, with ’20s-style intertitles for key lines of dialogue.

This being 1927, talking movies are just around the corner, and their arrival is heralded by the giddy appearance of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young fan of George’s who, through an accidental meeting with her hero and his subsequent patronage, starts to rise up through the studio system.

Fast forward to 1929, and Kinograph Studios, George’s employer, announces that it is quitting silent movies to work exclusively on sound pictures. Dismissing ‘the talkies’ as a passing fad, the actor ups-sticks with his faithful Jack Russell and goes into production on his own, in the process losing a fortune and a wife just as the stock market crashes.

As George’s star wanes so Peppy’s rises, and she is thrilled and upset by this in equal measure. At heart The Artist is a bit of an old-fashioned love story about star-crossed lovers whose circumstances are reversed as their paths cross. It’s also, of course, a film about the movies and about the poignant fate of so many of the big stars of the silent screen, from Buster Keaton to Lilian Gish to Erich Von Stroheim.

This is territory that’s been well covered before, of course, in Singin’ In The Rain, in Sunset Boulevard and even in the manic re-imaginings of ’20s and ’30s cinema conjured up by Canadian director Guy Maddin.

What gives The Artist fresh wings, though, is its genuine, almost naïve sense of fun. There are visual gags aplenty about the fact that we’re watching a silent movie but, other than this, the director plays a remarkably straight bat, so that we could almost be watching a film from the era in question. A lot of the humour comes from watching the amiable and ridiculous George just being himself in an overblown ’20s-movie-star-style or from guessing how his ever-resourceful dog is going to save the day next. There’s a real chemistry between the two leads too, and one of the best scenes is early in the film as a series of takes and re-takes of a dance scene from a film called A German Affair slowly introduces the actors, and us, to the idea that they’re falling in love. The style of that scene – funny, touching, a little nostalgic – is the style of the film overall. 

So while The Artist isn’t quite the masterpiece that some have suggested it to be, it is probably the most solidly entertaining and determinedly different mainstream comedy-drama to be released in the last 12 months. And for that alone it certainly deserves Oscars aplenty.

 

The Artist is out in UK cinemas now 

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