The Artist

Posted on March 7th, 2012 by Editor in Movies

The Artist really does deserve its Oscar for Best Film, finds 65DN’s reviewer.

Watching The Artist, which opened in Finland last week, you are glued to the screen from the beginning. The almost complete absence of dialogue in this homage to silent movies, means that everything – background music aside – is visual. The twists and turns of the plot are conveyed with close-ups of newspapers and collages as much as they are with the brief, telegram-like dialogue captions. And then there’s the actor’s faces. With no sound, how they feel can only be expressed with their subtleties of expression. This all makes for a surprisingly intense film which you may become absorbed in more easily than you would in the ‘talkies’ that replaced it.

Beginning in 1927, The Artist charts the fall of fictional silent-movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). In 1927, he is a major celebrity, living all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, albeit trapped in an unhappy marriage. But a chance meeting with an adoring fan – a young woman called Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) – sets off a chain events that lead to the end of Valentin’s movie career, bankruptcy and even attempted suicide. As Valentin’s star so tragically falls, Miller’s rises meteorically in the new world of ‘talking movies.’ The Artist movingly portrays, simply with the actor’s expressions, the heightened emotions that result from this: guilt, utter despair and petulant pride.

In many ways, The Artist is a director’s film. The plot is very – maybe even too – simple. The Artist is at heart an extremely imaginative and original idea: to show the transition from silent movies to talkies as a silent movie and to look the devastating effect this had on some silent stars as well as looking at the new generation of actors propelled to fame by the talkies. That the film centres around a relationship between an actor of each kind is a further inspired touch. It is an extremely original and ambitious idea that could have gone very wrong and been dismissed as ‘style over substance.’ But it hasn’t gone wrong. French director Michel Hazanavicius has given us a movie that is both poignant and heart-warming; at times light-hearted, at others descending into the abyss.        

The film is, in the main, a homage to the styles and conventions of silent movies and makes entertaining use of a fair number of them including not just captions but car chase scenes, emotional collages, facial close-ups, exaggerated facial expressions and dramatic jumps in action. Many of the characters are, presumably deliberately, stock roles from movies of the period: the dapper, womanizing male lead with the difficult middle-aged wife, the beautiful but coy young girl, the cigar chomping tycoon (John Goodman), the loyal dog and the even more loyal, elderly servant whose devotion mixed with age put you in mind of ‘Alfred,’ Batman’s butler.

In addition, the film reflects the mores of the 1920s: no nudity, no sex scenes, not much violence and so on. This, together with the general nostalgia of a period piece, gives the movie a feel-good quality while actually heightening the sense of smoldering passion between the two leads. There is strong attention to detail in maintaining the illusion of the 1920s, from clothing and cars to the words use in the captions. There are a few anachronisms – such as photo on the front of Variety Magazine when the magazine did not run photos on its covers at the time – but nothing major. The only clear historical error is an apparent mix up over the date of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which the film implies happened almost a week earlier than it did.

The ‘silent’ genre, backed by music, means that drama can raised to fever pitch both by the use of sound and of absolute silence and, at points in The Artist, the director does this to great effect. There is also an enthralling climax in which we finally hear the main characters’ voices and Valentin, of course, has a French accent. In fact, the way he speaks relates to my one serious criticism of the film.

Throughout The Artist, I found myself imagining that George Valentin was an American and was thus surprised when he spoke, in character, in a French accent at the end of the movie. It seems that quite a few silent stars, like Valentin, did not transfer over to the world of talkies, and it was usually because they had the wrong accent, many not even being native English-speakers. Pola Negri starred in 50 silent movies and had a fling with Charlie Chaplin, but the talkies revealed her thick Polish accent and this was her undoing. Many other actors could no longer find work because assorted foreign and even regional accents. Clara Bow couldn’t find work because of her Brooklyn accent.

In The Artist, Valentin is dismissive of talkies, assuming they’re a fad. But later when the studio for which he works decides to stop making silent movies because talkies are so popular, the company’s boss (played by John Goodman) fires Valentin and later again insists that Valentin is a silent star, not suitable for talkies. Some actors did make the transition to talkies. Accordingly, the plot would have been more believable if it had explored – even if only very briefly – why Valentin could not find success in the new talkie world. Why is his boss so sure that Valentin will not be successful in talkies? He says its because people want new blood in their talkies but this can’t be the only reason if some actors successfully transferred from silent to talkies. The obvious answer is that he has a French accent and presumably if this was the reason he would have been told it was.

In part, the film implies, sacking aside, that Valentin simply loathes the idea of talkies but, again, we are left wondering why. One would assume that all actors would be very enthusiastic about talkies – they are, to some extent, filmed plays and it was plays that came before movies. That Valentin reacts against talkies may imply that there’s a different kind of acting involved which he lacks the talent for. This appears to be: many actors simply couldn’t get used to microphones and the like and regarded talkies as less dramatic than silent films. But this is never looked at. This all leaves us asking a number of questions and is thus unsatisfying. It wouldn’t have taken much effort to deal with this flaw.

But the film is otherwise so superb that it cannot be spoiled by this oversight. The Artist certainly deserves its Oscar for Best Movie of 2011. It is not just highly ambitious and imaginative but a inspired and moving film. And it’s made want to watch more silent movies!

9 out of 10.

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