At a time when our cinema screens are dominated by sequels, franchises and superheroes (the seven most successful movies of 2011 fell into one of these categories), you long for a movie to come along that reaffirms your faith in the medium and reminds you why you want to spend so many hours of your life sitting in the dark looking up at a flickering screen. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Artist.
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius (a Frenchman previously known for making 007 spoofs in his native land), The Artist is the simple story of a silent movie star who fails to make the transition into the sound era. It’s an oft-told tale (think Singin’ in the Rain or A Star is Born) but what makes The Artist such an exhilarating experience is the glorious black-and-white imagery (it was actually shot in colour and converted in post production) and is, with some memorable exceptions, a silent movie from start to finish.
The Artist follows the fortunes of George Valentin (Dujardin), a silent movie star in the manner of Fairbanks or Gilbert. As with the latter in real life, the coming of sound is the death knell for Valentin’s career, but provides a glorious opportunity for besotted ingénue Peppy Miller (Bejo) to make her mark. While French actor Valentin is gloriously channelling Gilbert (all teeth and moustache), Peppy could be described as a cross between the ambitious Joan Crawford and the coquettish Clara Bow.
The Artist succeeds because it works on many levels. On the one hand, it’s a simple love story involving a fading older star and the new kid on the block. At the same time, it’s a cinephile’s delight, with allusions everywhere to silent classics such as Murnau’s Sunrise, King Vidor’s The Crowd and Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven. And the movie allusions aren’t all of the silent variety: listen out for a snatch of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score and watch out for a breakfast table sequence involving Valentin and his increasingly estranged wife (Miller) that echoes Citizen Kane.
Where it really succeeds, though, is in the fact that the director decided from the offset not to make a parody of a silent movie but to make a silent movie, even choosing to shoot it in 22 frames a second so the characters move slightly faster, as you would see in a movie of that period. And Hazanavicius is clever enough to play with some silent movie tropes, knowing that he is dealing with the sensibilities of a modern audience.
On the casting front, both Dujardin and Bejo are perfectly cast in their roles, and the director has surrounded them with an excellent assortment of American character actors, from John Goodman as the cigar-chomping studio boss, to James Cromwell, as Valentin’s faithful chauffeur.
And then there’s the bowler.
Hollywood has produced its fair share of talented pooches over the years, from Rin Tin Tin to Beethoven, but Uggie, the Jack Russell in this movie, is the Marlon Brando of canine thesps. He deserves to be, no pun intended, the lead in any future movie, and I am starting the campaign right here for the American Academy to introduce a special category at this year’s Oscars for Best Supporting Canine.