I have been amused all week by the fact that the quietest movie in the cinema is provoking the loudest reaction. French director Michel Hazanavicius is most famous for his droll parodies of 007 movies, OSS 177, but his latest feature, The Artist, focuses on a rather different genre of cinema: the black and white films of the late 20s- teetering on the verge of the advancement of sound technology that bought on an influx of 'talkies'. It is rare to find a person in possession of a beating heart and no love for the cinematic golden age.
The dresses, the music, the melodramas, the dance, the unadulterated romanticism... whichever element does it for you, it is embarrassingly easy to be swept away in the glorious pastiche of 42nd Street, Little Caesar, Dinner at Eight, Duck Soup... the list goes on and on, and each vintage gem holds a magical, very personal drop of nostalgia in a way that no other genre can manage. So luckily, Hazanavicius doesn't make the Artist a parody, he doesn't poke fun, and he isn't insincere.
The Artist tells the lavish story of George Valentin's (Jean Dujardin) fall from grace. Flying high as the star of his production company, Kinograph, he has women, producers, scripts and the cutest Jack Russell to grace the big screen all falling at his well-shoed feet. With the arch of one perfectly quaffed eyebrow, Valentin can make a grown flapper wiggle with glee- and all without a sound... watch and learn, boys of 2011, this is a lesson in the art of chivalry and charm, even if it is laden with more cheese than a Swiss fondue outlet. But as the talkies take off, Valentin gets left behind, as Kinograph search for 'fresh meat' (a notion that actors are still uncomfortably au fait with today).
They cleave it from the lovably bubbly Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who Charlestons her way into the hearts of the nation with her beauty spot and sonic skills. Naturally, love blossoms in the most unlikely of circumstances, as Peppy's career flourishes under her fat-cat producer's greedy eye (played by a perfectly cast John Goodman), and Valentin's marriage, career and wealth crumble at his feet. I'd hate to give the game away, but the ensuing plotline is rather predictable, but never boring, and although there's a knock on deaths door and a slew of perfectly-fashioned tears... it all ends in dancing. Which is always good, no? Well, unless you're a heartless moron, in which case stop reading now, because I'm about to applaud its old-school flamboyancy rather relentlessly.
Hazanavicius has the good sense to root the entire film, not in parody, but a network of subtle self-reference and quietly self-conscious wit. He makes the audience acutely aware, at all times, that this is a story told with the benefit of hindsight: especially in the moments when sound creeps in, to great comic effect. His choice to film a (largely) silent movie is fascinating not only because, in a world densely populated by epic 3D and surround sound, it's a wonder Hazanavicius even got the funding to make The Artist, but as the film progresses, the film's silence becomes so much more than just a bold decision: it becomes the glue that holds the film together.
The actor's near-mimicry of the stars of old came under some scrutiny- laziness versus stylistic accuracy became the argument du jour at the screening's Q&A. It is important to remember that this is a silent film, however: regardless of what actors have done in the past, Bejo, Dujardin et al have the difficult task of relating a story through the medium of expression alone (Hazanavicius uses speech cards very sparingly- which is befitting to an audience who would probably find them more disruptive than helpful). The style of acting employed, is a necessity, rather than an affectation, and Bejo, Dujardin, and a diva-ish Missi Pyle especially, carry it off with flair and panache.
It would be a crime not to mention the music - Oh! the music. To say it is sumptuous feels derogatory. It swells with emotional sagacity, is effervescent with nostalgic nuance and has the astounding ability to bring you to tears with a well-placed tremulo. Old classics are supplemented by Ludovic Bource's original score to superb effect- get your excuses for watery eyes lined up now.
To say that The Artist is a homage would be doing it a disservice: it partners up universal wit, timeless romanticism and classic style with sophisticated cinematography, the beneficial sheen of hindsight and silence that is truly golden. The two worlds of old and new glide through the film in a fascinating dance of modern nostalgia. If there's one film you should see before the year is out - The Artist is undoubtedly it.
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