From Abrams (Super 8) aping Spielberg, Allen (Midnight in Paris) namedropping Bunuel and Scorsese (Hugo) paying homage to one of cinema’s earliest icons, lately we’ve seen filmmakers increasingly looking back. It’s a trend born, one suspects, of a desire to return to what many perceive as a simpler, more innocent time; a time when artists, not accountants, decided when and how a movie was to be made. Call it narcissistic if you will, but it’s a persistent pattern, and one that reaches a whole new extreme in Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist. A bona fide silent movie set amongst the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in its Golden Age, the film is a crafty exercise, one that is explicitly designed to exploit feelings of nostalgia to a degree that they’ve rarely been exploited before. Well guess what? It worked. The Artist, as calculated as you know it is, is simply impossible to resist. It’s a spirited slice of old time movie-making that is sure to leave film fans a-beaming.
Hollywood, 1927. It’s a prosperous time to be a movie star, and no star shines brighter than that of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin; The Little White Lies). As handsome and charismatic as he is vain and self-centred, Valentin – with his pencil thin moustache reminiscent of real life silent movie sensation Douglas Fairbanks – along with his long time co-star, a talented Jack Russell terrier, is the biggest thing in movies since, well, ever, and has audiences, reporters and money hungry executives all eating out of the palm of his hand. But all good things must come to an end. For Hollywood, it’s the end of the silent movie, booted abruptly from the screen to make way for the next big thing: the talkies. For Valentin, it’s the end of his career, as he too is cast unceremoniously aside, usurped by fresh young talents like Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo; A Knight’s Tale), whose path soon crosses with Valentin’s own.
To those who might be made hesitant by the prospect of a silent movie, don’t be. Yes, the story is simple, and the acting over-the-top. But Hazanavicius and company have done a marvellous job of capturing the spirit of the erstwhile art-form, whisking you through film – and the films within the film – with near unbridled exuberance. Dujardin and Bejo, who have the advantage of being total unknowns to English speaking audiences, both give terrific performances – big and bold by necessity, but also charming and full of heart. The same is true of Ludovic Bource’s score, always present to heighten the emotion, punctuate the comedy, or simply fill in the silence where words cannot be heard. Visually, the film is just as impressive, with cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman working wonders with light and shadow in a classic 4:3 aspect ratio.
But while enormous effort has gone into recreating the style and feel of Hollywood productions at the height of the silent age, Hazanavicius is certainly not above have fun with his gimmick. The Artist is littered with clever little-self aware moments that play on the conventions of silent features, from Peppy being “overheard” in a restaurant, to a fantastic dream sequence in which Valentin is tormented by a cacophony of sounds. The appearance of recognizable Hollywood faces in smaller roles – John Goodman (Red State) as a cigar chomping studio boss, or an endearing James Cromwell (Surrogates) as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur – will delight knowing audiences, while the especially savvy may notice a dinner table sequence that steals directly from Citizen Kane. One rather major misstep in this regard is the use of Bernard Herrman’s Vertigo score in a key emotional moment towards the pictures’ end. It’s a great piece of music, but so recognizable that it immediately becomes distracting.
As fun as it is, it must be pointed out that a great deal of The Artist’s appeal comes from its novelty – in being a silent film in a noisy age, and a recreation of a style that has all but been forgotten. Still, maybe there’s nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia. It’s hard to think too critically about a film as joyous as The Artist. It simply sweeps you away.