The Artist is one of the most highly anticipated films at this year’s London Film Festival and it certainly did not disappoint, receiving a rapturous applause from the audience after the screening. This sumptuous film is an homage to silent films from Hollywoodland of the late 1920s but it is also so much more than this.
It’s 1927 and one of the biggest Hollywood silent movie stars is George Valentin (superbly played by Jean Dujardin), a dashingly handsome actor who loves the attention he receives and believes that ‘talkies’ are only a fad that will have no longevity. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is an aspiring actress who comes into contact with George after his film screening and is suddenly escalated into a curiosity by the newspapers. She uses this to her advantage and is soon starring in a film with the man of her affections and it seems the feelings may be reciprocated as George is charmed by Peppy. However, as Peppy becomes the new big thing in Hollywood, George’s career takes a turn for the worse as the advent of the talking film leaves George Valentin old news. The two actors face different destinies and it seems their flirtation will be as short-lived as the careers of the silent film actors. As years pass Valentin struggles to cope with the loss of his career and his pride as Peppy becomes the star attraction and soon Valentin cannot see life after the movies.
The film is predominantly silent, albeit for two hilarious moments, and title cards are used sporadically to depict some moments of dialogue. However, the true dialogue of the film comes in the form of exaggerated facial expressions, body language and the musical score. To begin with I wondered how a silent film could remain absorbing for today’s audiences but the pacing, humour and music ensure the audience will be totally absorbed throughout. There is an abundance of physical humour and sight gags that are self-reflexive and are really the driving force of the film, without this humour I’m not sure the film would have worked as tremendously as it does.
The story is a traditional romance which builds to a dramatic crescendo. Whilst it may be rather predictable that is sort of the point, we know what is going to happen and we want the characters to go down those routes and part of the joy of watching this film is the familiar story it so beautifully tells. The characters are all extremely well written from the charming self-absorbed leading man Valentin to John Goodman’s movie mogul Zimmer. The physicality of the acting is perfectly done, exaggerated but never in a ridiculous way. Valentin’s huge beaming smile and perfectly arched eyebrows are used to tremendous effect and his neat moustache brings to mind classic actors such as Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. Actor Jean Dujardin deservedly won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, his portrayal leaving me feeling like I was watching a genuine silent movie star from the 1920s.
As well as a lack of dialogue the film authentically employs cinematography techniques from the era. The classic 4:3 aspect ratio is used along with transitions popular in the 20s and 30s such as dissolves and wipes in the form of an iris and clock. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman shoots the film entirely in beautiful black and white and he ensures all old styles of filmmaking are included. Shot compositions are lovingly constructed, one particular scene where Valentin and Peppy bump into each other on a set of stairs is gorgeously observed from a long shot perspective depicting the two characters and all the workers dashing around them, the staircase forming a traditional twenties constructed design.
Music obviously plays a large part in depicting the emotions of the characters and the tone of the scenes and it is a joy to hear the original orchestral score by Ludovic Bource throughout. The music illustrates the era and the balance is flawless, the music never dominates a scene instead it complements the actions of the characters just as it should. The film manages to achieve a rare thing; being a pastiche without ever becoming a parody. The Artist is a loving imitation that utilises the conventions of silent film. Even scenes such as a dog rescuing his owner from a fire are not ridiculous as we are completely drawn into this fabricated and wonderful world. This scene was reminiscent of classic early silent film Rescued by Rover (1905) along with numerous others. Uggy the Jack Russell terrier, who plays the loveable performing dog that accompanies Valentin everywhere he goes and stars in films with him, is perhaps the true star of the film and won the Palm Dog Award earlier this year.
The Artist is a funny and charming film with an insight into how things were in the good old days and a great romance story at the heart of it. It could have been kitsch and cheesy but it is far too intelligent and knowing for that and also visually stunning. It is nostalgic but not in a whimsical way and has many levels. The film is playful and plays with its audience throughout, particularly in one dream sequence, and creates a world you do not want to leave.
The Artist is a truly wonderful film, one that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside and with a desire for the good old days. This is a film you will want to see again and again, an instant classic.
Director/Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell
Runtime: 100 mins