Showered with critical acclaim, nominated for the upcoming Golden Globe Awards (at time of writing) and tipped for Oscar success, The Artist hit the UK screens with a rush of hype – as do many films released in ‘award season’.
However, this is quite a feat for an almost exclusively silent picture in an age where CGI and 3D are continually breaking new ground and new box-office records. This nostalgic piece of work reminds the cinema-goer that what makes a truly inspiring film is one with honesty, chemistry, captivating performances and a story that makes you feel something.
The Artist is all that and more and is an extremely audacious picture to make – filmed entirely in black and white and sticking to the trademark use of wobbly subtitled shots cut within the action, as in the1920s silent classics.
Relative unknown (outside his country of birth) to the masses, French director Michel Hazanavicius more than compensated for the lack of voices, as his cast’s movement and expressions are electrifying.
The film is also driven by the glorious use of dramatic music from legendary composer Bernard Herrmann – famous for his scores in Hitchcock movies. In fact, since the release of The Artist, iconic actress Kim Novak has launched a scathing attack on the filmmakers for ‘stealing’ the music from Vertigo and ‘violating’ her ‘body of work’.
There is no crime in the use of Herrmann in this picture and it serves to build great suspense and drama, as well as letting the cast’s action really leap off the screen and it works perfectly in conjunction with the many raised-eyebrow stares and Hollywood smiles, most abundantly expressed by the captivating lead male, Jean Dujardin.
Dujardin – who won the Best Actor Award at last year’s Cannes film festival for this performance – plays silent-film superstar George Valentin, who can clearly sell The Kinograph studio’s various and frequent flicks by his pencil moustache and warm (but cheeky) Clark Gable-style smile alone.
He is loved and adored and appears to be a star burning brightly, without a care in the world. John Goodman is entertaining in the role of Al Zimmer, a larger-than-life and cigar-smoking movie director, who himself is even taken aback by some of the limelight-bathing antics of his big star.
But that is who George Valentin is in this film: a true movie star of his time. However, as the 20s come to an end and the 30s begin, Valentin’s world is soon turned upside by the arrival of cinema’s new technological age: the age of talking pictures.
Our star is not impressed by the emergence of the ‘talkies’ and turns his back on the new format, instead making it clear he is an ‘artist’ and that he doesn’t want to effectively sell-out. He stubbornly goes his own way, flying the flag for the non-speaking films, going against the grain and treading a lonely path, albeit with his regular canine co-star, his talented and loyal dog (played by the expertly-trained Uggie).
Inevitably, it is not long before he gets left behind and begins to enter an alcohol-infused and financially-crippling fall from grace. Is there hope for the master of a dying art?
This in itself is engaging viewing, but it is the subplot of the perfectly-opposing rise to fame of an actress and dancer called Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), which fuses the film together to become something special. Miller is a serial co-star of Valentin’s at the height of his fame after she blagged her way into the Kinograph set-up after a chance meeting at one of his a premieres. She idealises him and is overwhelmed to be acting with such a man, even making several attempted passes at the (unhappily) married man.
If Miller is the youthful future of the studio, then Valentin is the dead wood waiting to make way for the new, but as the artist proudly stays true to his art, he is effectively holding a melting candle, as he claims no-one wants to hear his voice. But despite Miller enjoying her new-found fame and rising stock, she has not forgotten where she came from and who got her into the business and why. She is determined not to let Valentin’s flame burn out.
The Artist deserves all its plaudits for a wonderful throwback to a bygone era and there are laughs aplenty and moments of clever irony, playing on the themes of silence and voice, amidst the genuine empathy evoked by Peppy and George, plus there is some impressive scene-stealing by the dog star, who will get special mentions in most of the award ceremonies I am sure.
The Artist (PG)
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell.
Running time: 100 minutes
The Artist is showing at the Rio Cinema in Dalston until Thursday 19 January.