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Non-Review Review: The Artist

It’s funny that The Artist should end up being so accessible. It’s a black-and-white silent film, shot in an abandoned aspect ratio, set in old Hollywood from a French director. It sounds like an exercise in arthouse excess, and yet it’s easily one of the most charming and engaging stories in recent memory. It’s hard to put a finger on which part of the film works so well, so I’m going to opt for a massive copout: they all do. It’s a love letter to cinema, but not necessarily to “classic cinema” – the movie feels pretty timely for a story set in the twenties. In short, if you are any sort of cinephile, do yourself a favour and check it out. You won’t regret it.

Released just in time for New Year’s, it seems like 2011 might have saved the best for last.

Now THAT's Entertainment!

I pity the marketing team who have to sell this film. I know a lot of people who will refuse to attend a movie solely because it’s in black-and-white. I can only imagine trying to sell them on a silent film. I wonder how many viewers will skip the film purely because it isn’t in colour, or because it doesn’t involve dialogue. It reminds me of those people who refuse to see foreign films purely because they don’t want to have to “read.” Still, I hope that The Artist can generate a passionate word-of-mouth (I’ll be doing my bit), because it really deserves to be seen.

I’ll concede that The Artist will probably resonate more with avid film fanatics than with other movie-goers. After all, it’s a film about “Hollywood” (or “Hollywoodland”, as the sign on the hill reads). Films about Hollywood are always risky propositions. If you do a poor job of it, it can end up a mess of in-jokes and indulgences, waffling on with a sense of self-importance that isn’t quite earned. However, if you can do it right, as very few films can, then you’ve got a treat for movie lovers.

Silent, but deadly...

I genuinely believe that The Artist belongs with The Player as one of those exceptional cases of a movie about movies working so very well, with director Michel Hazanavicius sharing much of Altman’s self-awareness. There’s that same sort of wry self-reflexiveness in this film, a silent movie about silent movies. On the other hand, perhaps it’s better to compare The Artist to films like Singing in the Rain or the first two versions of A Star is Born, as it echoes them quite a bit.

It’s also worth stating that I don’t mean “film fanatic” in any sort of exclusive or prejudicial sort of way. I’m not talking about people who know their autuers or can rhyme off the Best Picture winners. I mean anybody who gets a little bit giddy when the lights go down, despite knowing there’s ten minutes of advertisements between them and the film. I’m talking about people who have that one random line from a film nobody else saw that they quote over-and-over again. If you’ve every clicked your heels together on reading a cinema schedule for films old or new (or wanted to click your heels together, but realised it wasn’t socially acceptable), then this film is for you.

Hopefully movie-goers won't put it in the dog house...

It doesn’t matter if you like Laurel and Hardy or George Clooney, or if you’d rather watch Hitchcock or Nolan, this is a film that should resonate with anybody who has ever felt excited about movies, in any form. It’s cinematic nostalgia, but it’s open and inclusive. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen a silent film or a black-and-white film, or if you own your own reels and projectors, it’s a film for those who love film. I know this sounds like I’m pitching a sale, and in a way I am. I admit that the movie probably has quite a bit working against it, and I honestly don’t want anybody who might enjoy it to miss out on it because they fear it might be too “abstract” or too “niche.”

Michel Hazanavicius has a gem here. It’s a beautifully simple story, one following a famous silent movie star as Hollywood movies into the age of “the talkie.” Of course, there’s more than a hint of relevance to the story, as Hazanavicius shrewdly sets the advent of “talkies” against the backdrop of an economic meltdown. George Valentin refuses to involve himself in this new wave of media, assuring his studio boss, “If this is the future, you can have it!”

Executive decisions...

Of course, this feels almost like a discussion over the advancements that Hollywood is currently pushing to cope with the recession. I wouldn’t quite compare the introduction of recorded sound to something like 3D (and I think it’s presumptive to do so), but I think having high-profile film makers like Spielberg and Scorsese working in the format grants it some measure of legitimacy, and thus gives this classic story a bit of added weight.

Not that it needs added weight. Without spoken dialogue, it’s up to Hazanavicius and his cast to carry the film. It’s a very different approach than modern cinema, requiring a different style of direction and acting and even a wonderful score that makes sure you never miss the sound of the cast talking. There are any number of beautiful moments to be found in The Artist, and – like in so much great cinema – it’s in the most unlikely of places. It’s a wonderful conversation on a stairwell that is shot in a way you just wouldn’t shoot it today; it’s the slightly exaggerated physical presences of each of the cast (even if it never goes as far as “mugging to the camera”, as one cast member accuses; it’s something as simple as rain captured in black-and-white, or primitive special effects deployed with utmost earnestness.

A tough act to follow...

The cast do a superb job. John Goodman in particular seems to enjoy the hell out of having to communicate loudly with every part of his anatomy. I have never seen an actor enjoy smoking a cigar quite as much. Bérénice Bejo is superb as the female lead, and the star of this new wave of “talkie” films. It’s always great to see James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell, even in small roles. However, the show very clearly belongs to Jean Dujardin, playing the silent movie star George Valentin.

I sincerely hope that Dujardin enjoys the same success off the back of this as Marion Cotillard enjoyed after La Vie en Rose. It’s a superb central performance, where Dujardin is asked to communicate to us just how much of a prideful jackass Valentin is, but without ever seeming unlikable. The performer is an arrogant and selfish oaf who seems to drive away anybody who ever cared about him (at one point, even his own shadow), and hogs the spotlight while all but ignoring his wife. Everything that happens to him is pretty much entirely his own fault, and could have been very easily avoided.

I'll be watching their future projects with interest...

And yet, despite all that, Dujardin makes the character seem sympathetic. We pity him, and feel sorry for him, even as his actions should make it next-to-impossible to do so. To create such a complex and fully-formed character, all without the use of his voice, is quite a feat. More than that, Dujardin manages to play an actor in silent movies – meaning that Dujardin is tasked with acting in a silent movie, while his character also acts in silent movies. It’s to the actor’s tremendous credit that he’s able to play Valentin silently with his own set of exaggerated characteristics, while also playing Valentine playing other characters with their own sets of exaggerated characteristics.

In case you can’t tell, I loved The Artist. It is genuinely one of the best movies of 2011. If you are a person who loves cinema in any way shape or form, it is well worth your time.

5 Responses

  1. You’ve just convinced me! I am French and I had no idea it was shown in Ireland. Where do they show it? IFI?

  2. As always I love your reviews. I came here looking for what you say about The Hunger Games and got caught in the net of The Artist. It’s a beauty eh. Hunger Games?

    I’ve done 3 posts on The Artist. Please come read. I follow you there.




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