So I finally caught up with the rest of you. I was a little busy earlier this year when The Artist was in cinemas (busy writing all this crap, that is) but I picked it up earlier this week on Blu-Ray and, while I wish I had got the chance on the big screen, it was definitely worth waiting for.
Everything you’ve heard is true.
George Valentin, Hollywood’s biggest silent movie star, accidentally discovers a young dancer named Peppy Miller. After appearing as an extra in one of his films, her career as an actress sky-rockets. While she embraces the new-fangled talkies, George dismisses them as a passing fad. When they become the hot new thing he finds himself ruined, but as his star fades, Peppy becomes the new golden girl.
This film just sparkles in every way. The cast are incredible; the story is simple but effective and relatable; Ludovic Bource’s soundtrack is impeccable; and all of it is held together by the writer and director, Michel Hazanavicius. His first film with the same leads was OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies from 2006 (which I reviewed all the way back in January). While that flick and its sequel Lost in Rio were both also period recreations – 1960s spy movies, in this case – they were pastiches of the films they were emulating. The Artist doesn’t try to spoof the silent film era, it honours it.
Contrary to some other opinions, this is not a romantic comedy. While it is undeniably romantic at times and has moments of great comedy, it is actually a full-on melodrama; as much a cautionary tale as anything else. It is George’s own pride and short-sightedness that leads to his fall from the good life. The world is constantly changing, Hazanavicius is saying, and if you can’t or won’t adapt, you will be left behind. Luckily for George though, he managed to find someone to look out for him, whether it was happening with his knowledge or otherwise.
As George, Jean Dujardin is wonderful. He is always a very physically expressive actor, so it was no surprise to see him thrive in this milieu. Valentin is a much more playful character than he portrayed in the last movie I saw him in, although I am struck by the similarities in the story arcs of George Valentin and Lucky Luke. Both start off at the peak of their own myths, before crashing back down to earth after a personal failure, only to be restored after their friends (or, in Luke’s case, friend and sworn enemies) intervene. They’re both the same archetype… Okay, I really don’t know where I’m going with this. He’s fantastic, and still disgustingly handsome. Moving on.
If I didn’t know better, I would easily believe that Hazanavicius had reached back in time and pulled the wonder that is Bérénice Bejo right out of the silent movie era. I can’t think of any other current actress who can be so effortlessly timeless, who can simultaneously embody both Peppy’s innocence and her confidence and self-assuredness. The chemistry she shares with Dujardin is amazing as well, although that will come as no surprise if you have seen Cairo, Nest of Spies. She didn’t get the gig just because she’s married to the director, let me tell you. Except she probably did, since the role was actually written for her in the first place.
While the leads are obviously the most visible actors in the movie, it would be unfair to single them out for praise. The entire cast is just a treat to watch, from John Goodman as the brash studio head Al Zimmer to James Cromwell as George’s faithful chauffeur/valet/assistant/only real friend Clifton.
The Artist isn’t a silent film just because there is no dialogue, but because it is shot using the grammar of the silent era. The blocking, the angles, even the camera’s frame rate have all been chosen very specifically to help recreate the sense that we’re watching a movie that was actually shot in the early thirties. Is it a gimmick? Of course it is, but it’s a gimmick with some actual artistic merit behind it. This story could have been told using modern filmic sensibilities, but by making it in this style it becomes much easier for us to empathise with George’s plight. And besides, silent films are cool.
There are just a few other things I’d like to point out here. The director (I’m sorry, but it’s just too much effort to keep typing out his name every time and I’m overdue in fucking it up) (what do you mean, “copy and paste”?) decided, as a concession to the English-speaking audience’s general distaste for reading a movie, to keep the use of intertitles to a minimum. Those are the dialogue cards that pop up during silent movies to tell you what the characters are saying. Anyway, to avoid these as much as possible, he used a lot more visual clues within the shots that would subconsciously help you follow the more subtle story points. You can find these if you look at the movie titles seen in the background on posters and marquees. For example, when George is first giving Peppy her beauty spot in his dressing room, the poster seen between them on the back wall is for a movie called Thief of Her Heart, and when he is walking away from the auction George wanders past a theatre showing a certain Lonely Star.
If you have so much as seen the poster, it isn’t a spoiler to say that the film is ultimately a love story between George and Peppy, as well as a love story to the magic of cinema in general and the romance of Old Hollywood. What I’m wondering is this: at what point in the filmmaking process was Peppy’s character named? Was it before or after the role of George’s first wife was cast? A role played, incidentally, by the star of The Relic and Carlito’s Way: Penelope Ann (Peppy?) Miller.