Review: The Artist (2011)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

*****

Like no other art form or entertainment medium, cinema has undergone an immense process of evolution since the Lumière brothers introduced their invention to the world in 1895. Many great advances have been made in the subsequent 116 years, but there lies the risk that we, in our age of CG effects and 3D technology, may lose sight of where this art form came from. The Artist  is the most wonderful reminder of cinema’s past, and as such ensures its place in the minds of viewers long into the future.

It is often surprising how much sophisticated technology and money is used in the cinematic process; actors can be artificially put in far-flung locales, prematurely aged or touched up or shrunk to miniscule sizes. They can battle aliens, build cities underwater or destroy landmarks with the help of a computer. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has no such luxuries; his characters cannot even speak. As The Artist immerses us in Hollywood of 1927, many will begin to berate themselves for taking such a simple gift as synchronized film dialogue for granted. Valentin finds his tap-dancing and dashing ways are being left by the wayside as the ‘talkies’ become the talk (no pun intended) of Tinseltown. He also finds he has competition in the form of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a new starlet he helped discover, much to the chagrin of his wife Constance (Missy Pyle). Slowly but surely, Valentin finds his creative voice being silenced once and for all. It’s all unashamedly borrowed from Singin’ In The Rain (Dujardin is a dead ringer for Gene Kelly, bar a John Waters-esque moustache), but like that masterpiece The Artist is a grand homage to the silent era borne from sheer nostalgia and love for the period. Before James Cameron was ever a twinkle in his father’s eye, actors had to rely on their physicality to make an impact; Kelly himself had to ‘sing in the rain’ whilst battling a 103-degree fever. Dujardin and Bejo are the ultimate tribute to those actors’ efforts, dancing and smiling their way through auditions for studio executive Al Zimmer (John Goodman) and basically infecting the audience with their smiles, charms and tricks (check out Valentin’s rapport with his dog, a repeat scene-stealer). Dujardin in particular merits great praise; he nails the taps and shuffles perfectly, but Valentin’s story is bittersweet, and he perfectly conveys the sadness of a man who does all he can to survive in the cruel world of Hollywood, where only the relevant and pretty ones survive. Bejo seduces with a gorgeous smile and warmth in her character, whilst Goodman, Pyle and James Cromwell add the finishing touches to a neat ensemble (though Malcolm McDowell is reduced to a cameo. Pity, that).

Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius is clearly a nostalgic at heart; his previous films with Dujardin, the OSS-117 spy spoofs, are fun little James Bond homages/pastiches. The Artist, however, is a different beast. Hazanavicius commits to the silent treatment, coupling little flourishes of sound and other little modern touches with beautiful black and white cinematography and a peppy score to simultaneously replicate and honour the spirit of early cinema. There is nothing to distract from the actors, and they give themselves fully to ensure your entertainment, just like those stars of old. The Artist is a silent film for those who never watch silent films; it’s so giddily feelgood and reverent towards its inspirations that you will be powerless to resist. The Artist boasts all of cinema’s power without all the technologic fuss. It’s proof that silence really is golden.

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