When it’s on: Saturday, 24 January (10.00 pm)
The most charming Oscar winning film in living memory is an homage to silent cinema, a romantic comedy, and ridiculously good fun. Meet The Artist, the biggest player in Hollywood circa 1927. He’s George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a movie star who can’t stop making wildly successful pictures. Also a nice guy, with a faithful canine companion, Uggie (Uggie), happy to ride on the crest of his own personal wave, both infuriating and disarming his irascible producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), whilst blissfully unaware that Talkies are about to take over. Dismissing the advent of sound as a passing fad, Valentin quickly loses his grip on audiences, his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and, soon enough, his fortune, a victim of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 as well as his dive at the box office.
If there’s a saving grace for George, it comes in the shape of The Artist, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Moving to Tinseltown in an effort to make it as a dancer in movies, Peppy comes across Valentin by happy coincidence. The two share an instant attraction for each other, whilst he introduces her to the advantages of a fake beauty spot. Willing to embrace sound, Peppy steadily climbs the ladder to stardom, and by 1929 she’s the celluloid world’s shining light, just as his is fading. But she hasn’t forgotten him, and that will matter as his circumstances hit rock bottom.
That all this is played against a silent canvas, with only Ludovic Bource’s score and the occasional sound effect squeezing through the barrier, makes The Artist a great film. The whole thing is a gimmick, of course. Stuffed with references and jokes to the age of silent cinema, the entire opening act is a bow to the film work of 1920s stars like Valentino, Linder and Fairbanks, all of whom Dujardin channels as Valentin. It’s also a lesson in visual film making. Without the use of spoken exposition, the narrative has to rely on long lost references that can only be seen, never better displayed than when Valentin and Peppy meet on a studio staircase, her climbing it, him heading inevitably downhill.
It’s funny too. Valentin is completely likeable, utterly secure at the film’s start in his own fame and dancing across the screen, larking around with Uggie (they mimic each other perfectly) and happy to help out the threat-free Peppy. There’s a wonderful bit of filming that illustrates the feelings that are developing between the pair. Attempting numerous takes during a ballroom scene on A German Affair, they are supposed to end up dancing together, she an extra, he making his way across the floor, only each time they spend longer in each other’s embrace, by the end forgetting the fact they’re making a film. George is charming enough to win the devotion of his chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell), but none of his winning personality can beat the onset of talking cinema. Suddenly spooked by sound, Valentin is in his trailer and discovers, to his horror, that everything around him (a glass, his dog, a chair, some passing dancers) makes a noise whilst he remains resolutely, condemningly silent.
As the world moves on, Valentin remains rooted in the past, a relic of a swiftly bygone age. Within a couple of years, he’s living in much smaller quarters, surrounded by his old film reels and pawning all his possessions for liquor, whilst Peppy has become the main attraction, her career going stellar. It’s here the film takes ever darker twists. George loses the thread. He sees a tuxedo in a shop window and pictures himself wearing it, the reflection giving an impression he’s all dressed up, though even this is imperfect and shows how far he’s fallen.
I could type and type all my favourite bits in this film. The Artist never fails to hit the mark, serving up endless reasons why cinema is the narrative of dreams, then hinting at the shattering thereof before putting it all back together at the end. That’s it’s a ‘Silent’ is really circumstantial, a prop, and it seems inconceivable all those stories of people walking out on screenings and demanding their money back because there’s no actual talking, just cue cards. I suspect that’s part of the hype, because there’s simply nothing to dislike about it. Like Hugo, it plays tribute to the early days of the movies whilst ribbing them, and ribbing us into the bargain for following the latest fads and leaving the poor old likes of George Valentin aside.
Director Michel Hazanavicius and Dujardin were long-time collaborators; the pair had found fame in France for making a series of spy spoofs, taking full advantage of the actor’s talent at conveying emotion in his facial reactions rather than speaking. Bejo even got in on one of them, the wonderfully named OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. But all the referential fun of those films is dialled up a notch here, so perfectly played that it can even depict the realistic aftermath of a fall from grace, its bitter playing out; where do silent film stars go when the films are no longer silent?
If The Artist doesn’t rewrite film language, after all it sits easily within an age long gone, and knows it, and plays on it to such an exquisite extent that even the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was smarmed into making it its film of 2011, then it reminds us of a movie making craft that has been lost, the concept of movies as a wholly visual medium, and it succeeds completely in doing so.
The Artist: *****