The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, has popular appeal – fully-realised and engaging characters, a fairly normal, linear narrative – but in many ways it’s almost as bold as it gets for modern commercial cinema. Set in and concerned with Hollywood’s silent era, it uses many cinematic conventions from the period: it’s silent (with a full orchestral score), it’s in black-and-white, and it relies on intertitles to convey dialogue. It’s not even filmed in widescreen.
It opens with a film audience in awe as they watch their silent hero (and ours), George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), in the premiere of his latest film, A Russian Affair. It’s 1927; the palatial old movie-theatre is packed full, the audience is gripped, reacting audibly in time with the film – they gasp together, they laugh together. It’s the kind of cinematic experience that’s long gone, and it sets up one of the film’s key themes: nostalgia.
Following the premiere, George makes an appearance in front of the screen, and we see him at his career peak. Like all of the silent greats, he’s a man with unbelievable physical presence; and accompanied by his dog – his most loyal companion – he performs for the audience, dazzling them with his good-looks and comedic flair, and the kind of effortless abundant charisma that leaves everyone in awe.
Outside the theatre he accidently comes into contact with one Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a pretty young girl, herself in awe of the pencil-moustachioed charmer. He poses for a photograph with her, and the next day this appears on the cover of Variety under the headline: ‘Who’s That Girl?’ On the back of this fortuitous encounter, she manages to charm her way into the film industry.
As Peppy climbs the ranks, the industry undergoes a monumental change: the transition from silent films to ‘talkies’. Fast forward to 1929, and we quickly see that this augurs ill for George, who knows that his own style of physical comedy is considered outdated in a world coming to grips with talking films. But he’s stubborn and proud; he considers himself an artist whose medium is the silent film. (This has real-life parallels. In the career of Chaplin, for example, who prized the absence of sound and, unlike George, was encouraged to continue making silent films until as late as 1940.) And this is the issue at the heart of the film: we watch as George, once a superstar, deals with being left behind in a world that no longer values his art.
It’s a film that succeeds in every way imaginable. As George Valentin, the film’s centre, Jean Dujardin is superb; he manages to be perfect as both the preposterously charming and successful Hollywood leading-man, as well as the miserable and forgotten former-star. As Peppy Miller, Bérénice Bejo is almost as good as Dujardin, which is high praise indeed. The direction is perfect and loving; Michel Hazanavicius manages to create a pastiche that actually matches its model. The camerawork is beautifully fluid, and the score – as it has to be – is excellent, shifting effortlessly and subtly to mirror the mood of each scene. Ultimately – in my opinion, at least – The Artist is one of the best films released in recent years, and it certainly deserves to be seen.
Out now at FACT and Liverpool One ODEON