Review – The Artist

Yesterday I went to see The Artist, a film that has won critical acclaim across the globe. I was so excited after seeing it that I found it very difficult to condense my ideas  into a review – thus the structure is a big chaotic. My only hope is that my opinion is conveyed with clarity. Enjoy, if you can.

Review – The Artist

2011, 100 mins, PG – Dir. Michael Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

The Artist

When sound burst onto cinema screens in the late 20s (most famously in 1927’s The Jazz Singer) it was a relief, a sign of innovation and forward movement in the film industry after many years of silent pictures. Prominent actors lost their jobs during this period and were replaced by fresh, new, younger faces, who inhabited the new “talking pictures”. This transition, a landmark of movie history, has been seen in such classics as Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain. But The Artist is incredibly special as the subject matter is explored with the utmost authenticity; the film is black-and-white. And silent.

No doubt it would have been tricky to sell. Releasing a silent picture nearly nine decades after the heyday of such films seems implausible. Audiences have moved on – indeed, the thought of seeing something even in black-and-white is a bit of a stretch for a lot of people. If that’s the way you think about films, then shame on you. Because Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a beautiful piece of work, a beguiling film about fame, success and loss that’s one of the greatest motion pictures of the year.

It begins in 1927, when the dashing matinee idol George Valentin is at his height in Hollywood. He’s got a great picture deal with a major film company, a large house and hundreds of adoring fans. It’s not long before he brushes with Peppy Miller, an aspiring dancer. As “talkies” are introduced, Peppy becomes an incredible star while Valentin is eclipsed by the new format, losing all his money and descending into depression. 

The decision to make the film was certainly a bold (but ultimately rewarding) move. It can be a shock to the system when, at the beginning of the film, the audience of a cinema erupts into applause – and we can’t hear anything. Yes, it really is silent. Technically the film is very impressive with its excellent cinematography and lighting, but the storytelling is the best part. Hazanavicius gives us joy, jealousy, depression, anxiety and anger in a plot that is conveyed mostly through visual action. Not a word is spoken – the actual dialogue shows up on title cards. Does it lose any power with this reduction of voices? Certainly not. Who knew that the sight of a sparsely populated cinema screen could be so heart-wrenchingly affecting?

The choice of casting is impeccable. Jean Dujardin is the Frenchman that plays George Valentin and he does so with authority, emotion and visual brilliance. He gets the makings of a silent film actor down to a tee – his facial expressions, energetic movements and humour are characteristic of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and other greats. It’s as if it runs in his blood. Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be the wife of Hazanavicius, is equally spellbinding as Peppy, beautiful yet profoundly subtle as the girl who fulfils her dream, but not in its purest form. John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell make appearances but perhaps the best supporting role is that of Jack the dog. Accompanying Valentin throughout the film, the plucky young animal is a pure joy to watch. He deserves his own career.

The score, which covers the vast majority of the film, is rich, the playful piano tunes transitioning to a crescendo of stringed instruments in some of the more heightened scenes. Although most of the music is composed by Ludovic Bource (a frequent collaborator with the director) it is very interesting to hear some of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting Vertigo score during the film’s climax. Some have complained of the use of this music, but it is so perfect for the scene that it is more than forgivable. 

Although The Artist isn’t entirely silent – a nightmarish dream sequence mid-way sees Valentin plagued by sound effects of things hitting his desk – the fact that it has become so popular (and is tipped for Oscars) is immensely encouraging to those who really care about movies. It isn’t on a scale as grand as silent films like Metropolis and Cecil B. Demille’s first version of The Ten Commandments. In fact, there’s nothing lavish or ambitious about the story or production design. What Michel Hazanavicius has done has taken a simple script and shot it without audio; he’s taken us to a different world altogether, where expression wins over dialogue and camerawork is one of the most important elements. The acting is magnificent, the music complex, and the film overall is quite stunning. Will it win Best Picture at the Oscars? Perhaps. But in the 21st century, where the state of the film industry is doubtful, we can rest well in the knowledge that audiences have – for once – been introduced to something very unique.

5 stars out of 5

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