There are some movies that, by the time they’ve gone on general release, have received so much breathless adulation that some viewers might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. That old proverb about lowering expectations? Sometimes, the reverse is true.
This would perhaps explain why, when a movie like Drive comes out, with its five-star reviews and critical applause, lots of comments appear all over the internet from people struggling to understand why a legion stuffy journalists liked it so much.
I’m almost nervous, then, of saying too much about The Artist. I only knew a little about it going in, and that may be why I responded to it so warmly. At a time when we know 90 per cent of a film’s plot before we’ve even purchased a ticket to see it, The Artist came as a wonderful surprise. I’m almost tempted to just stop right here, paste the five-star graphic below these words, and toddle off into the night. But then I suppose that wouldn’t be much of a review, so I shall press on.
The Artist is written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, it’s black and white, and it’s shot in the style of a silent-era movie, with melodramatic music and intertitles picking out the dialogue. As modern filmmaking goes, that’s about as bravely retro as it gets, short of presenting cinema-goers with a zoetrope and a man playing an accordion for 100 minutes. But far from a distraction, or even a gimmick designed to please the arthouse crowd, The Artist’s evocation of the silent era is integral to its story. The Artist is packed full of references and riffs on classic movies, and even its broad, romantic-comic plot could have easily come from the golden age of American cinema.
Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, who at the film’s opening in 1927, is at the top of his profession. His action-packed movies draw huge crowds, and audiences love him, even if his vanity and public showboating often infuriate the studio boss who pays his wages (John Goodman, who’s perfect as the surly cigar-chomping, Hollywoodland archetype).
At the other end of the fame spectrum stands Peppy Miller (a luminous Bernice Bejo), a young hopeful who idolises Valentin, and displays a strong acting and dancing talent of her own. When a chance public encounter with Valentin lands Peppy on the front cover of Variety Magazine, she manages to take her first step on the ladder towards movie stardom.
For Valentin, meanwhile, times are changing. He shows more affection for his little dog than his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), who quietly scrawls graffiti on pictures of her matinee idol husband, and broils with hidden resentment. Technology also conspires against Valentin’s star wattage. As the era of the talkies begin – something he blithely dismisses as a fad – the ageing actor finds his audience beginning to wane, even as Peppy Miller’s star rises with increasing speed. Valentin’s attempt at winning back affection from his dwindling fan-base, a self-funded film called Tears Of Love, coincides with the market crash of 1930, and the actor’s career teeters on the brink of disaster.
The Artist is beautifully framed and acted, and among the most immaculately crafted films I’ve seen this year. Individual moments border on the miraculous; Hazanavicius presents The Artist as a traditionally shot silent movie, but plays fast and loose with the format. The opening sequence, where bits of Valentin’s latest blockbuster are intercut with the audience’s gleeful smiles in the cinema, concludes with utter silence as they applaud the picture’s conclusion. To our modern ears, that silence as they clap is extraordinarily jarring, as Hazanavicius deliberately lets the accompanying music fall away. He uses sound and music and music in creative, intelligent ways throughout, and one sequence, which I’ll let you discover for yourself, is flat-out frightening in its use of noise.
Both Dujardin and Bejo are perfect as the two leads, exuding the sort of charisma that was all over movies of Hollywood’s golden era, when actors seemd more like gods than ordinary people with good hair and make-up. There’s an immediate chemistry between both them and the camera. You could imagine either of them landing a major role in a 20s movie, and that’s an important part of The Artist’s success. (On a somewhat related topic, look out for a brief cameo from Malcolm McDowell, whose appearance is perhaps one of several nods to Singin’ In The Rain.)
The Artist’s release comes so close to that of Scorsese’s Hugo, another movie that looks back at cinema’s early history. It’s as though filmmakers are beginning to ask themselves whether their medium of choice might, like Valentin, be in its autumn years, usurped by modern inventions like the Internet and videogames.
There’s a distinct air of melancholy hanging over The Artist, but a great sense of warmth, fun and tenderness, too. This is elegant, beautiful filmmaking, and among the finest movies of 2011. I urge you to go and see it.