The Artist

I can’t think of a better way to start the New Year than by seeing Michel Hazanavicius’ charming homage to the early days of cinema, The Artist; an (almost) silent, black and white film that demonstrates such meticulous mastery of the form that it could be mistaken for a rediscovered lost masterpiece.

The film opens in 1927, when lantern-jawed matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is still the top draw at Kinograph Studios. With his slicked-back hair and carefully clipped pencil moustache, the smiling Valentin is, essentially, an avatar for Douglas Fairbanks, playing the dashing, undaunted hero of countless swashbuckling adventures. Adored by the public and cosseted by his profit-minded studio head (John Goodman), Valentin lives in a sprawling mansion, packed with tasteful objets d’art, where his icy wife (Penelope Ann Miller) aims daggers at him across the breakfast table.

The domestic chill doesn’t cramp Valentin’s style and together with his faithful manservant Clifton (James Cromwell) and his irresistibly charming Jack Russell dog, he swings and swaggers his way through the cardboard streets and houseplant jungles of the studio sound-stages, which Hazanavicus recreates in loving detail. When Valentin meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a chorus line hoofer with big dreams, he contrives to give the ingénue her big break, never thinking that she will soon surpass him. The Artist tracks Peppy’s ascent from background extra to leading lady as Valentin, unwilling or unable to make the transition to sound, enters a spiralling decline. He is yesterday’s man, quickly forgotten in the rush to embrace the new technology and collapses into poverty, alcoholism and bitterness, his loyal dog his only remaining fan. But Peppy hasn’t forgotten the man who gave her a start, who helped craft her public image and who she subsequently fell in love with.

There were hundreds of stories like Valentin’s in the early days of Hollywood: stars that glimmered brightly only to burn themselves out. He might have Fairbanks’ natty moustache and a whiff of Rudolph Valentino’s smoulder but his fall from grace most closely matches that of John Gilbert. Remembered now, if at all, for his on-and-off screen love affair with Greta Garbo, Gilbert was billed as “The Great Lover”, but his dashing presence didn’t survive the leap to talkies, hamstrung by a shrill speaking voice. He died in obscurity in 1936, at the age of 38. The film’s greatest trick, and its enduring joy, is that this Hollywood story is itself told as a monochrome silent picture, a movie within a movie complete with arched eyebrows, snappy title cards, Vaseline-smeared close-ups and a constant musical accompaniment.

Borrowing heavily from A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist wears it’s pastiche of influences with a bubbling confidence, bursting with affection for an era of cinema that most audience members will have all but forgotten. The Artist has the starry-eyed soul of a silent film: the characters are irrepressibly debonair, the romance is beguiling, the comedy is fresh and effervescent and the unexpected touches of sadness, when they arrive, add an elegant, piquant savour. The performances are uniformly superb, with Dujardin and Bejo making for an indelible screen couple, bursting with charisma and charm from the moment they first meet right through to a spectacular dance routine that tops the story with an exuberant flourish. These are the first great silent film performances in almost 80 years.

Lovingly rendered and perfectly put together, like Scorsese’s Hugo, Hazanavicius’ film might reignite an interest in silent movies - which represents a quarter of the history of cinema - but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t: The Artist is still a delight.


Drum said...

lovely review, cannot wait for when I get a spare moment to see this.

Unknown said...

Great review! I saw it last night and loved it. I linked your blog from my site if that's okay and a good review to read.

gretchenjoy said...

Well said. :) This film was absolutely delightful in every way.