The Artist is a glorious homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood that looks set to win over audiences around the world
By Will Gore
Not long ago, Michel Hazanavicius was little known outside his native France. The director’s OSS 117 spy spoofs were well received by his domestic audiences, but there was little to suggest that his star was about to rise in the most extraordinary way. The director’s latest film, The Artist, has played to packed houses at festivals around the world since it was rapturously received at Cannes. There, critics were quick to label it as a strong contender for their film of the year.
This may not seem unusual for an award-winning film (Jean Dujardin deservingly picked up the Best Actor prize at Cannes), but what makes the clamour surrounding The Artist so remarkable is the fact that it is a silent, not to mention a monochrome, film. Set in 1920s Hollywood, or Hollywood Land as the sign in the hills then read, the film explores the moment when the silent era came to an end and ‘the talkies’ took over.
George Valentin (Dujardin) is a major box office draw who has it all: money, fame and the attention of hordes of screaming girls. He takes one of these admirers, an aspiring actress called Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), under his wing and persuades his studio boss, an excellent John Goodman, to give her a small role in his new picture. However, just when it appears Valentin and Peppy might fall in love, they find their roles dramatically reversed; as the sound revolution takes hold, Valentin’s star wanes and Peppy becomes an overnight sensation. What ensues highlights the vicissitudes of a business where you’re only on top when you’re making money, yet never negates the allure of this magical, myth-making place.
The Artist’s gorgeous look, its meticulous set and costume design, and pitch-perfect performances all combine to create a replica of that bygone era. It is presented in traditional 1.33 aspect ratio and is replete with nods to the silent era. In one of the more sobering moments late in the film, when Valentin replaces his sharp suit with an ill- fitting, heavier look, Hazanavicius pays subtle tribute to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). In that silent classic, the German director suggested that his leading man, George O’Brien, wear shabby clothes and heavy shoes to help him convey the burden of his character’s troubles.
The genius of Hazanavicius’s approach to the deliberately melodramatic material is to offer an homage to the halcyon days of Tinseltown, whilst avoiding lachrymose sentimentality and empty nostalgia. The Frenchman has said that in approaching the making of the film he knew that he needed to come up with a “modern film for a modern audience”. To do this, he has found endless ways to keep us engaged and entertained.
Though he may play with the conventions of the period, Hazanavicius never completely undermines it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a wonderful dream sequence. The director acknowledges the artifice of the world he is creating, but allows us the pleasure of indulging in it. Crucially, he resists drawing on his experience in broad comedy and spoof – both OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009) pull out all the stops in sending up the spy genre – to parody the silent medium.
While The Artist is a film explicitly about the end of the pre-sound era, it is also a love letter to cinema itself. The revolution in sound that took place in the 1920s acts as a metaphor for the developments that have taken place in cinema before and since. From the revolution in colour to the recent fad for 3D, cinema is consistently evolving, never failing to surprise us. The film’s title may be a reference to George Valentin (and there is little doubt of Dujardin’s brilliance in the role), yet it is Hazanavicius who finally emerges as the most dazzling artist.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
The Artist screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 6 January