Review: The Artist

***originally written 23 January 2012***

At this time in early 2010, as the awards season was hotting up, the film on everyone’s lips was Avatar, and debate was raging over whether James Cameron’s astounding technological achievement would be recognised as a major leap forward and a ‘game-changer’. The consensus seemed to be that 3D was the future and that things would never be the same again. The biggest advance in cinema since the addition of sound. Funny then that now, two years later, the major contender on everyone’s lips is a silent feature in black and white, playing in the 1:33 aspect ratio. And a movie about ‘game-changing’ cinema.

The Artist is an homage to an antiquated style of movie-making, a love-letter to film itself and – possibly – a rejection of 3D and high-tech cinema. Whether 3D has changed anything remains to be seen, but in a world of bigger-and-bigger blockbusters on exhaustive budgets (which, more-and-more, are saying nothing) The Artist feels like something of a relief. I saw The Artist in a sold-out screening, one of many that have been playing up and down the country, and I can’t help but wonder whether it is just the ‘silent gimmick’ that is drawing curios, or whether it’s the idea of something more simply engaging that is drawing the crowds?

Whatever it is, ‘simply engaging’ seems like a fitting place to start in describing the movie. Like some of the best works of the era it evokes, The Artist fills up your eyes with wonderful images, and holds you engaged with the best elements it has at its disposal; compassion and comedy. The movie tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a colossal of silent cinema whose days are numbered thanks to the invention of sound – the ‘talkies’ are coming, and Valentin is becoming old news. What’s more he’s being usurped by starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an up-and-coming young actress he helped into the business. Inevitably we chart Valentin’s fall from grace, only to be revived by and to reconcile with the very woman who – in his eyes – cost him his livelihood.

If it seems like I’m giving away too much plot here, then you really haven’t seen enough movies. The story here is so old, so obvious as to feel like just another part of the 1920s gloss. The Artist doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does give the wheel something of a polish. The first half hour to 40 minutes in particular is a wonderful ride of ingenuity, comprising several must-see moments (a dance divided by a screen, Peppy’s arm inside Valentin’s empty jacket acting as a ghostly partner, a clever use of an outtakes real as a means to convey a growing attraction between the leads). Director Michel Hazanavicius front-loads his picture with clever wit and charm. I defy you not to react positively toward The Artist, especially in this winning stretch.

The film also joins the ranks of successful films about Hollywood itself. And whilst not on a par with the likes of Singin’ In The Rain or Sunset Boulevard, Hazanavicius’ film doesn’t half try. The similarities to Singin’ In The Rain in particular are striking, especially in the many sly winks to cinema of the era, not to mention how the main story hangs on the troublesome rise of the ‘talkies’. The Artist acknowledges that it is a genre exercise, and has fun with it. You always know you’re watching a movie, and as such, the peppering of familiar faces in supporting roles becomes part of the fun. “Is that really Malcolm McDowell? Yes! Yes, it is!”

And I’m not a dog-lover but I also defy any of you not to be won over by Valentin’s plucky sidekick, Jack. It is caustically clear that the man has more fondness for his canine companion than his wife. The Jack Russell proved so endearing at Cannes that it was given it’s own special award; the Palm Dog.

So is there anything wrong here? Well, I hate to be a spoilsport, but kinda. As much as that opening stretch excels, Valentin’s fall from grace lands a little laboriously, and as an audience member I found myself waiting for the plot to pick up again. Also, the film does cheat its central conceit as silent cinema. Twice. However, it does so with good reason on both counts, and as for the mid-way sag, it’s certainly not fatal. So much here is good that it’s hard to be harsh. The Artist may not be original, but it is well-plotted, with plenty of neat pay-offs. Plus, it’s got John Goodman in it! That’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for nearly any film.* And it’s also got Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo going for it. Dujardin is wonderful, with a grin to rival Gene Kelly, whilst Bejo makes her smaller role distinctive. Definitely one to watch.

So The Artist isn’t perfect. At the end of the day you can’t escape the feeling that this is, well, a gimmicky movie. A director gleefully fulfilling a lifelong dream. And yet there is enough warmth, wit, charm and flare on display to make this much more than a vanity project or mere curiosity. It might not be perfect, but it’s pretty damn fine entertainment. And isn’t that what the movies are all about? By cutting away dialogue, Hazanavicius reminds us of the fundamentals, and points out just how often the movies are bogged down by words these days. Aren’t the pictures supposed to tell the story? Go check it out.

Score:  4

*I’m forgetting about The Flintstones Movie conveniently here

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