The Artist

February 18, 2012
Screen shot 2012-05-01 at 8.35.40 PM

Never have I felt more in tune with Bill Collins’s encomiums on the golden days of Hollywood than after seeing The Artist. In the week leading up to the Oscars one could say it’s been a pretty good year, but if there is one film that reminds us of just of why we go to the movies, it is Michel Hazanavicius’s remarkable tour de force.

The irony is that Hazanavicius is not one of the big-earning Hollywood directors, but a Frenchman of Lithuanian origins. His cast were equally unknown outside of France until this film came along. The last time we saw Jean Dujardin, who plays silent screen heart-throb, Georges Valentin, was as Ludo in Little White Lies. He went off on his motorbike at the start of the story, got totalled by a truck and spent the next two-and-a-half hours in intensive care. As for his co-star, Bérénice Bejo, the role of rising starlet, Peppy Miller, is about a thousand times bigger than any character in her back catalogue. It probably helps to be married to the director.

George with his big smile and Peppy with her sparkling eyes are both irresistable, but many would argue that the real discovery of this film, is Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier, who has his pawprints on almost every significant scene. His agent is probably negotiating a six-figure deal with a Hollywood studio even as I write, although he does have some competition. By some mysterious influence of the Dog Star it has been a stellar year for terriers, with a mutt called Cosmo starring in Mike Mills’s Beginners, and an animated Snowy stealing the show in The Adventures of Tintin.

As everyone knows by now, The Artist is an almost completely silent film, shot in black-and-white, with intertitles and the jaunty music that seems an integral part of the early cinema. It sounds as it shouldn’t work at all, and one can imagine Hazanavicius’s struggles to sell the idea to his backers. But the results are sumptuous, spell-binding, miraculous. What this movie does so well is to remind us how little is really needed to make a great film.

The story is scarcely less primitive than anything Hollywood coughed up in its infancy: a dashing movie star bearing a vague resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks, watches his career go belly-up as he fails to make the transition from the silents to the talkies. A young wannabee, to whom he has been generous, tries to rescue him from his plunge into oblivion. The operation is hampered by his pain and pride, as he watches her name going up in lights while his is forgotten.

This is hardly more than a variation on a theme that has been rehearsed in many another film, and even in real life, as stars found their careers fizzling with the silents. The success of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer in 1927, sent shock waves through the industry. By 1929 almost every Hollywood film was using sound.

This is the moment explored by The Artist, as George Valentin’s silent action flicks are overtaken by the new vogue. Although his features look decidely corny, George sees himself as an artist in the medium of film, and we see it too through his eyes. The new medium seems faddish, vulgar, lacking in the nuances required by the silent actor. What was once achieved by sheer charisma and force of personality, is now in the hands of script writers who supply the witty dialogue the public demands.

One assumes that George’s specific problem is that he is French and has an accent that hardly fits the mould of the all-American action hero. He cannot conceive of films with sound, although his visual instincts are extremely sharp. He tells the young Peppy she needs something to make her stand out from the crowd, picks up a pen and applies a beauty spot on her top lip. It becomes a trademark, and one of her first hit features is titled Beauty Spot.

Perhaps the reason why The Artist is so seductive is because it proves George’s point. After watching this film, we realise that most movies are indeed wasteful, crass, and long-winded – dependent on tedious dialogue to advance the plot, or on special effects to titillate audiences wth short attention spans. Very rarely does a director strike a harmonious balance between words and images.

The Artist is a homage to the silent era but also a highly intelligent commentary on the film industry, studded with sight gags and clever touches of symbolism. As a broken George walks past a movie theatre, we notice the feature is called The Lonely Star. On another occasion, the movie is Guardian Angel. The real fulcrum of the story occurs when George meets Peppy going up an elborate staircase as he is on the way down.

Most remarkably, there is not a character in this movie who might be considered a villain. This keeps the story out of the realms of melodrama, despite all appearances to the contrary. For although this is an immaculate facsimile of a silent era film it is also a movie of today. It is not a spoof or a parody but a feature that uses the visual language of another time to speak – silently but eloquently  - to a contemporary audience.

France, Belgium, Rated PG, 110 minutes