There’s a lot of buzz surrounding this film in terms of gold statuettes, and it genuinely deserves the excitement being generated. I went in thinking perhaps it might be a bit gimmicky but couldn’t have been more wrong. Director Michel Hazanavicius has embraced the silent movie medium. It’s outrageously self-referential and in a way that is bold and daring, never smart-alecky.
The year is 1929. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie star. He is handsome, funny, charming, and at the top of his game. He is also undeniably arrogant. After churning out hit after hit with his best friend and co-star (Uggie the Dog) something happens: talkies. Silent film is history and he becomes a relic of a bygone era. All the while the talented Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), with whom he has developed more than just on-screen chemistry, is becoming a huge talking movie star.
Dujardin is magnificent in the lead. The 2011 Cannes Jury Head (one Robert De Niro) told him he, personally, wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. The performances are all incredibly well judged; Bejo possesses the necessary star quality, John Goodman was born to play a cigar-chomping movie mogul, and Uggie the Dog is quite enchanting. (Some commentators have suggested the canine be nominated for an Academy Award.) The performances are ‘bigger’ than in a talking picture but they are also realistic. It’s a very peculiar thing. And don’t get too excited (like I did) about Malcolm McDowell being in the film. He’s not in it for very long.
The film stands alone. It’s really quite unique. The other revisionist silent movie that springs to mind is Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie – a comedy that has some good gags (e.g. the only word spoken aloud in the entire film is done so by Marcel Marceau) but it lacks any kind of authenticity. The Artist, on the other hand feels genuine. The director has made it look and feel like something from the period. It’s in black and white of course, and the squarer-than-usual 1.37:1 aspect ratio makes it all the more tangible.
Although I was enjoying the film from the off, it did take me a little while to get used to the rhythms and cadences of its ‘speech’. My friend who I saw it with, suggested it’s akin to watching Shakespeare - which I think is a good analogy - it just takes a bit of time to tune in. It’s incredibly funny, by the way, and often in a subtle and sophisticated way. It is also, as perhaps the style lends itself to being, honest and pure – a really wonderful film.