Just over 18 months ago, as I first came across reviews for The Artist, I feared it was being overhyped and the film could not possibly hope to satisfy those made curious by the increasing amount of word-of-mouth praise that was being heaped on top of it. There’s nothing the film industry likes more than a film about the film industry, after all, and in the past many of these seemed to me to be overly-celebrated from unquestioning critics all the way up to the select panel of judges tasked with handing out the big shiny gongs each year. Surely there was a great deal of sycophancy driving all this praise. You can imagine the speed with which a studio green lights a film about a film studio (providing, of course, it’s not set in the present). Most of the time it’s probably signed off even before the idea has popped itself into someone’s head.
More fool me. As this garlanded modern masterpiece by Michel Hazanavicius received glowing review after glowing review, and major awards at every big shiny gong ceremony, I realised that the rest of the world probably did know better than me, a humble punter who hadn’t actually gone to the trouble of seeing the film before forming an opinion (what, that’s a pre-requisite or something?) Sadly it has taken me over a year to sit down and actually watch the film that won precisely 16,321 big shiny gongs across the globe (including of course three of the big four at the Oscars), and from the opening credits to the end I felt very, very stupid for ever wondering whether that blanket praise was deserved.
For the few remaining people interested that haven’t actually seen The Artist yet, it is a romantic comedy-drama pastiche of silent films from the 1920s, set in a rapidly-changing Hollywood during the period that ‘talkies’ were first introduced. The lead character is actor George Valentin (the superb Jean Dujardin), a major film star that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the changing nature of cinema, falling on hard times after his studio, Kinograph, casts him aside in favour of newer blood. Conveniently the newer blood takes the shape of George’s love interest, Peppy Miller (the equally superb Bérénice Bejo, also the Director’s wife), who literally stumbles into the limelight one evening before enjoying rising fame as the darling of New Hollywood.
Clearly much time was invested in the set and costume design, as well as a lot of research into the hammy old acting techniques of the era. Yet despite the incredible attention to detail we’re not just talking about a faithful recreation of the silent movies of that period. The Artist is wildly inventive, much more so than I expected it to be, drawing on techniques from films that appeared long after the studios had ditched the anachronisms of silence for the excitement of sound. Although it is set between 1927 and 1932, The Artist is confident enough to embrace techniques pioneered by Orson Welles in the 1940s – long(ish) takes, low camera angles, chiaroscuro – so while it is undoubtedly a love letter to the silent period, it is equally a love letter to the idea of possibility that pre-and-post-war cinema provided and to some extent still provides today. It also has a knowingly light playfulness that many French filmmakers seem to be able to tap into, and a snippet of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score that appears late on in the film is inspired. (An aside: it has been heralded elsewhere but I have to mention it here. Ludovic Bource’s soundtrack to The Artist, recorded with the Brussels Philharmonic, really is excellent; without a score so strong, a large piece would have been missing from the overall pie. Despite it being a ‘silent’ film it is as much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes.)
The subject of changing times and attitudes made me consider whether all of the changes in cinema we have seen in the last century should really be equated with progress, as they so often are. Early on in The Artist George is attending a premiere with studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) and co-stars Constance (Missi Pyle) and Jack (who happens to be George’s magnificently-trained dog, played by a sharp little chap named Uggie, who attempts to trump Jack Nicholson’s ludicrous 100% scene-stealing act from The Departed. And wins comfortably). Immediately, with the magnificent pit orchestra playing in the theatre, we are transported back to a time that forces us to study just what we have lost. Whether it is historically accurate or not, I felt a pang of sorrow at seeing the audience depicted in The Artist laughing and gasping as one at the delights on their screen, enraptured by the new-ish thrills provided by the moving image. Yet just last week I saw (on DVD) a trailer for Battleship and (on the big screen) a trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s forthcoming special effectathon Pacific Rim; on both occasions I was left feeling slightly sad that my reaction to the costly visual extravaganza that I was supposedly being teased with was so numb, rather than expectant with excitement. Hollywood is chucking so much money at bigger / louder / faster / headachier films that repeatedly show our demise or near demise at the hands of aliens, tidal waves or supervillains – or even all three – it has become a banal norm. In fact I’m surprised if I get to the end of a film these days and find that New York is actually left standing. The Artist, with its modest budget of $15 million, looks better than most 3D CGI fests I can think of from the last five years, with only one or two exceptions, and the simple reason for that is because it shows us something new by showing us something old, inventively. Not that I am a complete Luddite that harks on and on for a return to a bygone era. Times have changed, and you only need to look at a film like this, that lightly examines a five year period of Hollywood history, to see how rapidly things do move on. As viewers we simply follow on at the same pace, but occasionally you have to stop and wonder whether we’re all going in the right direction.
I do have a fond affection for silent films, but like most people I’ve let them quietly (arf) slip out of my life on the whole, and certainly wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on the subject. I remember watching the likes of the Keystone Cops, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy as a child with one of my uncles, both of us laughing uproariously despite the age difference, but in recent years the only silent films I’ve seen have starred Charlie Chaplin. I expect many of the oblique nods and references to the era in The Artist will have been lost on me. Still, I appreciated the level of joy and passion that bursts from every scene in this loving homage. The next time the movie machine hypes up a film about the movie machine, I’ll try not to be so readily dismissive. Lesson firmly learned.
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Written by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell
Running Time: 100 Minutes