With the release of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies in 2006 Michel Hazanavicius and the seemingly effortlessly charismatic Jean Dujardin looked set for global domination and a real crossover into the mainstream cinema-goer's consciousness. Outside of France OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, and the equally smart and entertaining sequel OSS 117 - Lost in Rio (2009), never seemed to really break out in the way that they perhaps should have done though.
Despite some incredibly witty and biting satire and a glorious cinephilic approach to filmmaking, the OSS films seem to have been regarded as little more than Bond parodies in the vein of the dreadful Austin Powers films, a misunderstanding not helped by the lack of awareness outside of France of the original OSS films.
Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin have reunited yet again though and this time their cinematic playground is not the cult Eurospy films of the sixties but the better known, certainly in the US and UK, Hollywood of the twenties. In particular The Artist centres on the dying embers of the silent film period in Hollywood and the birth of the 'talkies'.
Setting The Artist in twenties Hollywood Hazanavicius again re-creates a period not just within the verisimilitude of everything we see on screen, the costume design and so on, but also in his technical approach. The most obvious signs of this are of course in the academy ratio framing throughout and the absence, for the post part, of synced sound but there are also a number of subtle and expertly applied techniques too.
The period detailing is always present in the composition and also in the way in which the camera moves, or significantly doesn't, constantly conveying a sense of time and place through stylistic choices. There are allusions to other films too, although these are not always quite so rooted to this exact period in Hollywood's history, including an amusing nod to the famous breakfast table sequence in Citizen Kane. There is even one sequence in which Hazanavicius cleverly incorporates footage from The Mask of Zorro and the extent to which this appears so naturally part of the film is a testament to Hazanavicius' technical adherence to the period and Dujardin's spot on performance, and slight similarity to Fairbanks.
Dujardin and co-star Berenice Bejo are also quite extraordinary in the way in which they so convincingly capture a very particular performance style prevalent in the late Twenties in Hollywood. Aside from the temporal specificity in their physical performances, an expertly placed hand on a hip here or an eyebrow raised there, both manage to convey all that is required wordlessly. Silent film stars' rather 'large' performances have become something that is somewhat mocked in some sectors of popular culture but there is no sense of cruel parody here, this is a loving tribute and an attentive pastiche.
The Artist goes beyond pastiche though, 100 minutes of which could have simply been one gag drawn out too far, and tells a grand and very beautiful story. Whilst the coming of sound and backstage Hollywood machinations provide a framework for the film narratively, and provide an interesting and absorbing context, the meat of the story is in the romance between George Valentin (Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bejo) and as this difficult and complicated relationship unfolds over many years one becomes invested in their lives and emotions whilst at the same time gripped by the story of the coming of sound.
The Artist is not at its core a cinematic essay piece or simply an indulgent slice of self-reflexism but an intoxicating story told with skill and humour. The final moments in the film blend the two intertwined narratives, the romance and the move of Hollywood to sound, wonderfully in a climatic scene that showcases Dujardin and Bejo's talents even further and brings to a close this joyous and beautiful tale.
The Artist will be released in UK cinemas on the 30th of December.
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