There’s so much to love about The Artist. It had so much working against it – not only is it black and white and French, but it’s silent – yet this little movie charmed everyone that saw it, and went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Watching it at home is, admittedly, not the same as seeing it at the cinema – to get the best out of this movie, you really need to allow yourself to become completely immersed in it, without any distractions, yet it is still a delight from start to finish.
What is perhaps most impressive about writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s film is how clever it really is. It opens with a deception; the image of a man screaming, with no voice heard. Yet it soon transpires that this is not “real life”, but is in fact a silent movie within a silent movie. It’s only when we don’t hear the audience’s reaction, but instead see the faces of the stars, hidden behind the cinema screen, as they hear the riotous applause from the auditorium, that The Artist‘s lack of sound really becomes evident. And it’s clever from start to finish – this is a silent film all about sound – but it never threatens to become overwhelmed by subtext or showing off. Hazanavicius has created something that feels natural, utterly believable, and entirely engaging – not because of its intelligence, but because of the beauty of the story, and the characters within it.
Knowing something about the history of cinema helps when watching The Artist, though it’s not a requirement. Set during arguably the most turbulent time in film history, the late 1920s, it follows silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and rising starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who I first saw getting massacred by wild boar in French horror movie Prey), whose careers are both affected by each other, and by the introduction of sound. Whereas Peppy embraces sound, George refuses to accept it – his thoughts echo many who believed sound compromised the purity of cinema – and his inability to move with the times is to be his downfall (although, as is revealed in the film’s final moments, there is a reason no one wants to hear George speak). So as Peppy triumphs as the new face of the studio’s talkie pictures, George becomes a dinosaur, no longer relevant and no longer wanted.
While the film is clearly a love letter to cinema, the performances are central to its success. Dujardin, who deservedly won an Oscar for his role, is perfect – I can’t imagine anyone else playing George so beautifully. He looks the part completely, with his Errol Flynn good looks and delightfully expressive face; the star quality is instantly evident. He oozes charisma (it’s no wonder all the females are so impressed with him) and even in his more arrogant moments, he’s always endearing. He reveals a darkness as the film progresses, and it’s devastating to watch this handsome, charming man so tormented by how his life has turned out.
This effortless charm is not necessarily mirrored by Bejo’s Peppy, whose name suits the character; she’s at times a bit flippant, sometimes slightly overly-emphatic – of all the performances, hers is the only one that seems to be occasionally overcompensating for the lack of sound. Still, this is a minor quibble, and it is perhaps more to do with the strength of Dujardin’s performance, than the weakness of Bejo’s. They share the screen with a wonderful assortment of cameos by mostly American actors with great faces: John Goodman, Joel Murray (God Bless America), James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell. Of course, the other star of the film – perhaps the biggest star of them all – is George’s dog. In a true story of rags to riches, Uggie went from being a rescue dog to an award-winning acting dog – he won the coveted Palme Dog for his role, and regularly steals the show.
Crucial, also, to The Artist‘s success, is the score that accompanies it. The original score by Ludovic Bource perfectly captures the emotion and tone of the film; the upbeat, jaunty tunes in the opening moments gradually giving way to more sombre orchestral scores. The decision to use a section of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo in a later scene, while met with disgust by that film’s star Kim Novak, was a brilliant one – it’s poignant, heartbreaking, and is so well integrated that it could have been written specifically for this film. Why Novak was so emphatically upset about the inclusion is a mystery – for a film all about cinema, it’s hardly an insult to pay homage to the film recently voted the best ever made.
There are so many wonderful moments in The Artist that it would be easy to gush. It looks beautiful, shot in crisp monochrome – a romantic snapshot of 1920s Hollywood. The story is simple, but wonderfully told. By combining the classical style with very modern editing techniques, it never seems to drag, and I think this is really the key to its mainstream appeal. Yet what most impresses me is how easy it is to accept its format – and its success indicates that this was felt not only by critics, but by regular cinemagoers. In fact, it’s such a quickly acceptable style that when a “real” sound is heard (in a brilliantly executed nightmare sequence) it’s horribly unsettling. And here is the true beauty of The Artist; you don’t have to be a cinephile or a film buff to appreciate it. It’s a joyous experience, funny, heartfelt, nostalgic… I challenge anyone to watch it and not have a huge, slightly teary, smile on their face at the end.