There’s no business that likes itself more than show-business. With its lavish red carpet premieres, glitzy parties and never-ending parade of masturbatory awards shows, Hollywood’ endless fascination with itself is well-documented, and then some. Armed with the knowledge of the industry’s obsession with all things “me,” it shouldn’t be surprising to see why filmmakers have been making movies about themselves since the earliest days of the medium.
With Super 8, My Week with Marilyn, Hugo and now The Artist all making their mark this year, I’d say the sub-genre devoted to filmmaking is having quite the banner year. While the other three (specifically Hugo) are all touching nods to different eras of film history, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, which is set during the age of silent cinema, takes the homage aspect to a different level entirely: it’s a silent black-and-white film in and of itself!
Despite these limitations, or perhaps because of it, the film works on every level! From its opening scene which just so happens to be a silent movie within a silent movie to its enchanting finale, The Artist left me exalted with its wit, charm and warmth. In other words, it had me grinning like an idiot and feeling all warm and fuzzy in the way only the best films tend to do.
The year is 1927 and The Jazz Singer is just around the corner. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin channeling Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly) is a beloved silent movie star at the height of his fame. When we first meet him, he’s charming the socks off audiences at the premiere of his latest film A Russian Affair with his loyal sidekick Jack, a Jack Russell Terrier, in tow. It’s at this premiere where he bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a beautiful and talented fan who he instantly bonds with. This chance encounter leads to Peppy scoring a small role in one of Valentin’s films and eventually starts the ball rolling on her soon-to-be-blossoming career.
When the birth of sound pictures sweeps through Hollywood like a tsunami, Peppy and Valentin’s career paths take drastically different routes. Peppy, slowly but steadily rises up the ranks to become one of the new faces of sound cinema while Valentin – like silent cinema – torpedoes into obscurity – no thanks to his stubbornness and absolute refusal to keep up with the times. When invited to partake in the new revolution, he scoffs at his studio boss (John Goodman), rubbishing sound films as a fad (a lot like how many of us scoff at 3D and motion-capture cinema today). Unfortunately, his assumption is only the beginning of a tragic turn of events that lead to his downfall into despair, poverty and alcoholism.
As you can deduce, there’s nothing inherently complex about the plot of The Artist. In fact, anyone with an acute knowledge of film history will instantly recognize the story as a pastiche of classics like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star is Born and maybe even a smidgeon of Sunset Boulevard, albeit without dialogue and an incredibly light tone – something I suspect many will chastise the film for. In fact, I too wrote off the slightness of the film as a shortcoming after I first watched it but in hindsight, I’ve come to realize that criticizing a lovingly-crafted valentine to silent cinema, a genre renowned for its buoyancy, for not being serious and deep enough is akin to saying Singin’ in the Rain is inferior to Schindler’s List because it doesn’t tackle the Holocaust.
The most astounding thing about The Artist and the primary reason why I think it’s one of the year’s most ingenious efforts is how writer-director Hazanavicius, who also directed the outrageous OSS 117 comedies, simultaneously plays both within and outside the realms of the silent medium. On one hand, he’s remarkably faithful to the silent genre: The Artist is presented in 4:3 format, and utilizes many of the geographical, shooting and editing techniques of the period such as soundstage production, iris fade ins and fade outs, title cards etc. Concurrently, he whimsically plays with the rules of the medium by incorporating sound elements into the picture at key moments in inventive ways, and even gives it an air of meta. Greatly enhancing his direction is Ludovic Bource’s lush score which plays a vital role in playing up the film’s emotional moments.
Speaking of emotional moments, if Hazanavicius is the film’s brain, then the charming Dujardin, who channels a young Gene Kelly, is without doubt, the film’s heart. Dujardin’s devil-may-care attitude, dashing smile and fluency in expressing multiple emotions by barely flinching is one of the paramount reasons why the film works on so many levels. He laughs, he cries, he even dances. It’s a magnificent star-is-born performance. While Bejo isn’t as magnetic as Dujardin, she’s suitably effective; as are John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller in supporting roles. However, it’s Uggie the dog, who plays Valentin’s sidekick Jack, who steals the show in one of the best canine performances I’ve seen on film.
An enchanting and painstakingly-crafted valentine to silent cinema, Michel Hazanavicius’ joyous comedy The Artist is literally unlike any movie playing in cinemas. Navigated by a terrific performance from Jean Dujardin, this witty, inventive and splendidly-acted homage reiterates the magic of movies and their transporting effect on us.