If there was ever a film primed to deliver a shot in the arm to film critics everywhere ready to tear through a slew of conventional Oscar-courting releases this October, then that film is indubitably Michel Hazanavicius’ endlessly charming, near-silent masterpiece The Artist. A bold, bravura work which staunchly refuses to be categorised alongside the rest of its award-season brethren, this is a film at all times refreshing, funny, effortlessly charming, and a strong contender for next year’s Best Picture should the Academy – composed largely of middle-to-old-aged actors, directors, writers and so on – latch onto its aspirations towards a simpler time, as I expect they just might.
The year is 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a seemingly unflappable silent film star and keen entertainer, whose stature is nevertheless threatened by the advent of talkies. The poster girl for this changing tide is a beautiful young dancer, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who George ironically and accidentally helped to be discovered in the first place. George meanwhile stubbornly presses on with his own self-financed comeback picture, a now-anachronistic silent adventure farce doomed to fail, while coming to meditate on the possibility that his time as an A-lister is very much over.
A cynic might say that The Artist is a textbook case in style over substance, what with so much effort being poured into its immaculate period detail and downgraded technical aspects; relatively soft-edged, low-definition video is presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio in black-and-white, while a deceptively simple tale is told that’s more often silly than serious. That is to ignore a grand wealth of charm – perhaps not so evident to younger viewers – lying beneath, of a clear love of silent cinema, and a tribute that’s not so much tongue-in-cheek as it is genuinely effective and stirring as a work of near-wordless filmmaking.
There’s little mistaking Hazanavicius’ clear reverence to issues of the period’s day; George, with his sublime physical presence, charm and obstinate hostility towards talking pictures, almost instantly reminds one of Charlie Chaplin, one of cinema’s most vocal objectors to them. While Chaplin’s Modern Times is first and foremost a social critique of the inequality and desperation following the Great Depression, there’s little mistaking that his visual rhetoric – take, for example, the scene in which The Tramp is fed through a series of cogs – reflected disenchantment with technological advancement, including his own with the talkie.
While George gets no such chance to voice his frustration, this film, itself a silent film lovingly produced in the signature style, complete with intertitles and a wonderfully bombastic orchestral score, is his, and Hazanavicius’ plea, not to forget a time gone-by which we cannot conceivably return to, except with home video, and of course, stunts like this. While the film is no doubt distinguished further because it arrives at a time in which sophisticated but emotionally empty CGI and inconsistently-deployed 3D are the rules of the roost, The Artist is also on its own merits an extremely sophisticated work, with a fine sense of postmodern wit.
Such is the film’s key success; it ably recalls the visual sensibilities of the period, as well as the smart physical gags – watch as Bejo’s Peppy dances with George’s jacket, pretending that it is him after all – yet is acutely aware when to build on it and pull some more modern tricks out of the bag. This operates two-fold; understated visual effects allow for a few surreal moments in the film’s later sections, but more importantly, the characters and their actions are updated in subtle ways to reflect the typically more educated audiences of today (not that you’d know from looking at box office receipts lately).
Its grandest achievement further still, however, is in mastering the very essence which made Chaplin’s silent films successful even after the advent of the talkies; it conveys emotions, thoughts and feelings through clever visual means, making intertitled-dialogue scarce at best, and allowing the viewer to extrapolate their own interpretation from several scenes. One fantastic sequence has George and Peppy filming a scene in which they dance, and through each flubbed take, we see their chemistry develop into what might be something more by film’s end. Better still – and probably the film’s most memorable scene – is a nightmarish scenario in which, after learning that talkies are going to steamroll his silent films, George’s world suddenly turns from silent to sound-based. It’s hilarious, surreal, a little scary, and whip-smart to boot.
Jean Dujardin is rightly earning raves (and received a Cannes Best Actor award) for his work here; while likely to be in aggressive opposition to every other performance gunning for an Academy Award this year, that is precisely why it, and the film itself, might garner so much attention. As his love interest, Hazanavicius’ wife Bejo is an alluring starlet, now fiendishly difficult to picture in her timelier roles once you’ve seen her as an immensely convincing 1930s beauty. Several venerable Hollywood actors, meanwhile, round out the pack and help the picture from feeling too distinctly European and “other” – as if the silent quirk isn’t enough – with John Goodman slotting in perfectly as the head of George’s studio, while James Cromwell is a hoot as George’s butler, and there’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Malcolm McDowell.
You needn’t have a storied history with silent films to delight in the not-so-simple pleasures of this wonderful work of art; it is a celebration of a form of cinema often dismissed as prehistoric and dryly dull. The Artist will therefore operate as both an extremely entertaining romance – between George and Peppy and also ourselves and cinema – and as a vital history lesson about how far we purport to have come, and how some things will never change.
Michel Hazanavicius’ spellbinding love-letter to silent cinema is a masterclass of inscrutable production design, top-notch physical comedy, and a postmodern sensibility which never descends into a rose-tintedly overzealous adulation of the era.
The Artist is due for release November 23rd in the UK.
We also gave the film a glowing review from Cannes which you can read HERE.