The Artist and Hugo both won a hefty five Oscars, between them cleaning up at the 84th Academy Awards. Where Hugo was shot using the latest technology 3D, The Artist played out in black-and-white, shot in the old Academy near-fullscreen aspect ratio of 1:37, and even silent – the first silent movie to win an Oscar in almost 90 years. However both movies had a remarkable amount in common beyond their equal Oscar split; their subject-matters both enriched by almost identical period-era backdrops, with the intentions of the directors behind each of the movies being to pay great tribute to the world of film, and the artists therein.
Certainly it was a daring, ambitious gamble to attempt to shoot a successful silent film the best part of a Century after they were last popular, but one has to wonder whether – with Hugo being shot in 3D, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol being shot in IMAX – the black and white, fullscreen, silence behind The Artist was just another attempt to be different; a stylistic gimmick which audiences only really appreciated because of the novelty value. Was The Artist deserving of its considerable Award success, or was it just a respectful imitation of any other generic 20s silent-era flick, finding success merely because it was appealing to an audience that had little or no point of reference from that period of filmmaking?
In 1927 silent film actor George Valentin is at the height of success, commanding a great deal of power over even his own film producers due to his popularity and star appeal. He can simply do no wrong. One night, whilst wooing fans on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest movie, he literally bumps into a young woman called Peppy Miller, and it’s not long before he’s twisting his producer’s arm to get her a small part in his next film. During their short time filming the seconds-long scene, Valentin and Miller share great chemistry; it’s a moment that touches them both. However – with the advent of ‘talkies’ – Miller’s star is soon on the rise, whilst Valentin’s silent movie era appears to be coming to an end...
For well over a decade French Filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius had been interested in making a silent film, only to be – somewhat understandably – denied the financial backing to make it happen. After reworking the classic French 60s OSS-117 spy films into surprisingly successful action-comedy pastiches, however, he was given the green light to make his modest 13 Million Euro ($15M) silent film, The Artist. Little did the producers know that this somewhat quirky, eccentric request would lead to seven BAFTAs, five Oscars, three Golden Globes, and six French Cesars, leaving it the most awarded film in French history, and giving it the critical acclaim to marry up to its massive ten-times-its-budget Box Office success.
Of course none of that really means a great deal if – like me – you have little-to-no interest in seeing a black-and-white silent movie about late 20s/early 30s Hollywood. It takes a great deal of persuasion to get me to the theatre; there are literally only a couple of musicals that I can even tolerate; and I’m more of a Laurel & Hardy / Marx Bros. fan than a silent-era Charlie Chaplin / Buster Keaton follower. So I didn’t much care how many awards The Artist won, it still didn’t appeal to me.
One of the great pleasures – and, occasionally, great curses – of reviewing, however, is the fact that you sometimes get to cover a film that you would not have otherwise gone out of your way to see. From Luc Besson’s surprisingly touching biopic The Lady to the French actioner Forces Speciales, there are so many movies out there that sometimes you inadvertently come across some enjoyable treats that you never even noticed on the release schedule.
As you may have predicted, The Artist was not on my short list, but I got landed with it anyway, and dutifully spun the disc only to find that it was actually a surprisingly enjoyable throwback spectacle.
Indeed, in light of the fact that (outstanding performances therein notwithstanding) neither Moneyball nor My Weekend with Marilyn quite lived up to the expectations of being more than just good, or solid, movies – respectively – I was yet further (pleasantly) surprised to find that The Artist was actually a very good movie.
Sure it may not have deserved all the dozens of Awards that it has won – Best Picture is a bit of a stretch when it was up against Malick’s multi-layered The Tree of Life, or even the insightful family drama The Descendants; and Best Original Score, as actress Kim Novacs has vocally expressed, is something of a travesty when you consider that the entire climax is cut to the score from the end of Hitchcock’s Vertigo – but it’s still a fine little period piece which captures the sentiment of an era long-lost, and revels in a filmmaking approach that became extinct as soon as dialogue in movies became popular: the art of telling a story largely without words.
See, when you think about a silent movie, you don’t think about a screenplay; you don’t think “hey this is a film that will definitely earn the writer a Best Original Screenplay award” – there’s no dialogue, how hard can it be? Yet Hazanavicius, rounding out his triptych of duties on the film – director, editor and writer – deserves praise purely because there was no dialogue. As a silent movie, the only words are seen on ‘intertitles’ which help piece together the spoken but unheard conversations, but there are only so many intertitles that you can use, even on a 100-minute movie, and it’s a real art form to try and tell a story with as few of these title cards as is possible.
Crafting a modern production of a period melodrama, The Artist is brimming with all the requisite eccentricities and over-the-top behaviour you would expect in this kind of piece; the sort of “grand” acting and bumbling physical sight gags that were commonplace before talkies took over. But what is interesting is the way in which the movie does not get swamped by this silliness, overwhelmed by humour and capricious whimsy – instead the narrative becomes about the death of silent movies; the death of this free-spirited love of life, itself symbolically mirroring the start of the Great Depression that occurs – to the day – at the same point that the lead character suffers his final death blow in Hollywood.
Credit where credit is due, however, because no matter how much time the director/editor/writer took to hone his vision of the project, the success of the end result still rested heavily on the shoulders of the cast and – perhaps most importantly – the lead actor.
Having worked with French actor Jean Dujardin twice before – on his successful OSS-117 spy spoof double-bill – the writer/director actually envisioned this project to be led by him, with Dujardin’s OSS-117 co-star Berenice Bejo (the director’s own wife) as the love interest, Peppy Miller. Perhaps the purposefully exaggerated work on the OSS spoofs helped develop Dujardin’s more crowd-pleasing, intentionally over-the-top acting, because he’s simply perfect as the grandstanding silent movie star who finds his art soon has no place in the new era of Hollywood talkies.
Like some kind of twisted hybrid of Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Vincent Price, Dujardin’s Valentin exudes classic 20s/30s Hollywood panache, his slicked-back hair and pencil-thin eyebrows and moustache perfectly framing that near-permanent camera-friendly grin, wooing his audiences with grandiose theatrics that go on to define him. It’s wonderful seeing him filming the movies-with-the-movie: each take requires him to attune himself to a certain level of exaggerated faux-serious acting; his performances in just the repeated dance setpiece takes could easily have been used in a parody, were it not for the fact that he knowingly looks at the film crew before each successive go, and puts himself ‘in character’. Although we know him more through his apparent, overt self-assuredness and outwardly charismatic behaviour, we get to know the other side to him, through a very cleverly conceived nightmare sequence and several downward spiral scenes that challenge his pride at every turn, and compel him to face the changing world around him before it bulldozes right over him.
Dujardin won no less than 5 Best Actor Awards for this role – at Cannes, the BAFTAs, the Globes, the Oscars, and the French Cesars (he’s the first French actor to win the Best Actor Academy Award, although perhaps that’s because this film didn’t require him to speak a great deal – had it been in his native French the whole film would have likely just been relegated to the Best Foreign Language Film section instead) – and this kind of universal acclaim is in large part thanks to the fact that he simply drives the movie with his lead performance, and the amazing realisation that the performance itself requires him to convey his dialogue, his emotions and his thoughts without using words.
If the director was searching for the best way to bring his daring attempt at a modern silent film production to life, then he certainly found the ideal protégé in Dujardin.
Although you won’t be quite as quick to praise the rest of the cast, there are some great supporting performances, with some fine subtle touches – from The Big Lebowski’s John Goodman, as the commanding film producer (who, without being distracted by his distinctively deep voice, looks like he’s actually got the physical gestures of Robert De Niro) to Carlito’s Way’s Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin’s near-comatose wife (Miller actually looks strikingly like Naomi Watts from J. Edgar here, particularly since her curly hair looks blonde when shot in black and white); from Missi Pyle’s envious silent film co-star to James Cromwell (The Sum of All Fears) as the stalwart, ever-loyal chauffeur.
Beyond them all, and matching up to Dujardin’s strong lead performance in all but sheer screentime, is French actress Berenice Bejo, who shares fantastic on-screen chemistry with the lead. Sparkling with intoxicating energy, you’ll likely fall in love with her Peppy Miller as quickly as Dujardin’s Valentin does, and their scenes together are – without a doubt – the highlights of the movie, from their first blush collision to their anonymous tap-dance-off, to the brilliant sequence where he catches her imagining herself being caressed by him.
Funnily enough, nearly stealing the entire show, we also get Award-winning dog Uggie, playing Valentin’s faithful follower. Perhaps it’s because the trainers had carte blanche to bark orders at him (since it was a silent movie), and perhaps it was just because he was so well trained in the first place, this cute little Jack Russell Terrier is a whole character unto himself (the Jack Russell Terrier in Beginners was also impressive). Whilst neither the BAFTAs nor the Oscars recognise animal performers – and I don’t necessarily think that should change – Cannes created a whole award for this kind of contribution, and Uggie quite rightly wins it.
The Artist is a charming and rather unique little modern melodrama, which utilises a whole array of unusual, now somewhat outdated stylistic choices to help cement its long-forgotten silent-movie period setting. Cleverly blending the silent soundtrack into the actual story itself – as Hollywood evolves to adopt talkies – the film resounds as a multi-layered study of technological changes overwriting and overshadowing old styles; the flavour of the month soon discarded in favour of the Next Big Thing, whilst also symbolically mirroring the Great Depression in the very intimate character study within. Whilst the story could easily be dismissed as slight and inconsequent – in a reflection of what most people think of melodramas – the subtext, although perhaps not as pronounced as you would like it to be, is still effective, rendering it more substantial than at first glance.
Still, it will no doubt be a one-hit-wonder in terms of the black-and-white, fullscreen 1.37:1 Academy ratio, silent stylisation – I can’t imagine that many other filmmakers will suddenly decide to revert to any, let alone all, of these past technologies to bring their productions to life (discounting heavily stylised modern features like Sin City and its upcoming sequel). It’s a daring, adventurous anomaly, and one which thankfully doesn’t outstay its welcome, even though it comes desperately close.
At the end of the day, however, the film really works because of the sheer fun and frenzy of the visually-driven, orchestrally-enhanced spectacle of it all. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and French lead stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo will sweep you off your feet and take you down a long-forgotten road to a past time filled with romance and elegance, bravado and energy; where all of those elements used to spill out onto the screen before your eyes. A warm and feel-good drama, don’t let the Award wins either put you off, or determine your expectations; give it a chance and it might just win you over.
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