Not since Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singing In The Rain has a film so daffily observed the introduction of sound, or “talkies”, into cinema. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist revisits this territory with new-found melancholy and touching heart.
The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), silent film superstar who appears to have a limitless range, channeling roles from pirate to Colonial adventurer, all with his trusty Jack Russell Terrier by his side and in every frame.
Through a chance encounter, George meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a fan who channels the press from her meeting with the screen star into extra work in George’s newest film. The pair have instant chemistry. But as George is an unhappily married man, the two part ways without so much as an extramarital transgression.
But a reversal in fortunes sees George fired from his film studio in order to make way for fresh, talking meat. Sound is being introduced into moving pictures and George’s big studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants new talent for the thunderous future of film. Peppy is able to capitalize on her charming, loud exuberance and becomes an overnight talking sensation.
George, clinging to his pride and the past, bankrolls his own silent film that quickly flops. Soon he is divorced, in the midst of financial ruin during the Great Depression, and out of work. His only companions in his dingy flat devoid of Valentin’s hallmark decadence are his loyal Jack Russell Terrier and his driver Clifton (James Cromwell). The latter will not leave Valentin’s side, even as the eclipsed star fails to pay him.
Although Peppy is part of the clamorous new age of cinema, she cannot get George out of her mind. Desperate to pull the fallen star out of his alcohol and nostalgia fuelled depression, Peppy searches for a way to help George find his voice.
Charming and jovial, The Artist is a deeply moving and entirely original picture. Glitzy, dazzling, and full of life, the French film is in black and white, and almost entirely in silence, (save for a few well-placed noises of innovation). The genius of Hazanavicius’s meta world lies in its contravention; the silence is a nostalgic progression and noise is old news. The result of introducing the smallest of sound, be it an exhale of breath or the clambering of a water glass on a table, feels as if cinema is reborn; it is an experience that is entirely reminiscent of the transition from black to technicolor as Dorothy steps into Munchkinland in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz.
Cast perfectly as the two young stars are Dujardin and Bejo. The pair seem like 20s actors plucked out of dusty film spools and transported into a theatre from the wrong decade. Dujardin’s Valentin is a lothario infusion of Clark Gable and the aforementioned Gene Kelly. His natural charisma is only matched by his heart-wrenching depth in solace. Bejo is stunningly beautiful and altogether wacky. Each performance, though mugging and large to adhere to their silence, also contain subtle, gentle nuances that speak louder than words ever could.
The result of these performances, the glitzy, innovative throwback, and that Jack Russell Terrier is an entirely exhilarating rebirth of cinema. Like a refreshing glass of water, or a warm hug on a freezing day, The Artist is a welcomely cheery high-point to the routinely dreary awards season. Hazanivicius has crafted a picture of somewhat shallow depth that still manages to evoke a genuine swell of investment from an audience of new believers. With timeless themes come revisited invention. The result is a must-see film.
As far as its Oscar future goes, The Artist has quickly and surely become the one to beat at this year’s Academy Awards. Raking in some big wins at this year’s Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Jean Dujardin, this little French film that could shows little signs of slowing down. Although I believe this film is bested by The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and Take Shelter, I am still pleased to see such an inventive and all-and-all charming film take some spotlight.
I predict a Best Picture nomination and subsequent win, along with a nod and win for Best Actor for Jean Dujardin. Michel Hazanivicius has stiff competition from Martin Scorsese for Hugo, a directorial performance that stole the Golden Globe. However, with the big bad Weinstein wolves blowing at the Academy’s twig doors, I can see a possible underdog win for the French director.
What did you think of The Artist? Was it all about Cosmo, the Jack Russell Terrier, or are you more of a Uggie from Beginners fan? Make it rain cats and dogs in the comments section, whydontchya?