Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Artist

Cinema’s golden history has rarely been more celebrated. Recently Martin Scorsese’s wonderful homage to the art of Georges Méliès, Hugo, has wowed audiences in 2D and 3D alike. And now Michel Hazanavicius has joined his directorial colleague in producing a loving tribute to the art of early cinema. The Artist is not only about silent movies: it is a silent movie. With the mighty Weinsteins behind it, this wholly original production is an early forerunner for Best Picture at the Oscars. Is it worthy of such lofty status or is it simply a successful gimmick?

Opening in 1927, the focus is firmly on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin): a dashing old-school charmer of a movie star. Permanently accompanied by his dog, Uggie, he’s the biggest star of the day: Brylcreemed, moustachioed and raffishly handsome. His slicked-back hair, top-hat and tails call to mind any number of black-and-white movie stars of yesteryear – not least the similarly monikered Rudolph Valentino.

As George watches the premiere of his latest smash movie from behind the cinema screen we are given a glimpse of the man’s character – he’s self obsessed to the point of vanity but retains a vulnerability and charm in spite of himself. He’s also a shameless self-publicist. Posing for photographs outside the venue he accidentally becomes attached to an extraordinarily pretty young lady. Sensing a perfect opportunity to mug for the cameras he strikes a pose with her, thus plastering the unknown girl onto the front pages and into the gossip columns.

She is Preppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a wannabe starlet and dancer determined to utilise her brush with fame to launch herself into stardom. And this she achieves with aplomb. Along the way her path repeatedly crosses George’s. Sadly while her star is in the ascendant, George’s is on the wane. The advent of ‘talkies’ sees the silent star consigned to the scrapheap whilst Preppy’s acceptance of the new technology sees her becomes one of the first stars of the new Hollywood era. Despite their careers heading in opposite directions the two become increasingly dependent on the other: will their tale have a happy ending?

Anyone entering The Artist unsure about what to expect is soon given a perfect lesson in what silent cinema is all about: Michel Hazanavicius shows us all the major components of the medium in the first few minutes. We see the audience crammed into the auditorium, the orchestra in the pit, George’s latest movie on the screen. With unerring accuracy and great economy the director tells us everything we need to know. And then he goes one step further. As the film ends and its final title card appears you expect to hear the audience’s applause. There is none. Instead, three seconds of silence accompany images of the cinema crowd clapping and cheering. Immediately anyone harbouring uncertainty is made perfectly aware that if there is no orchestral score there is no sound at all.

With the conventions established, Hazanavicius goes on to treat us to a multi-layered spectacle beyond anything you could hope for. With as few title cards as possible, dialogue is at an absolute premium. But what there is has multiple meanings and hidden depths. As George’s career and marriage hit the slides his wife nails his problem with just one line: “Why won’t you talk?” It’s typical of a narrative which tells its own story through the language of another cinematic era. Very post-modern.

There are further nods to modernity. One scene updates the genre slightly, bringing amplified sound effects into George’s wordless world. To say exactly how this is achieved would be to spoil the surprise, but it’s entirely fitting that the director has chosen to apply more modern cinematic techniques to his loving homage: at once his tale becomes a marriage of old and new. A further contemporary addition at the film’s climax also does much to explain George’s aversion to the new cinematic medium – and might lead to the film to be viewed in a different light second time around.

There is nothing modern about the acting, however. The two leads give classic silent cinema performances of great expression and thoughtful exaggeration. Dujardin is a camp, arched-eyebrowed composite of the gentlemanly old-fashioned actors your grandparents grew up with, Bejo is a wide-eyed beauty with grace and style to spare. Their chemistry is hypnotic – perhaps one of the great screen couples. The supporting cast of familiar character actors like John Goodman and James Cromwell lend a pleasingly familiar backdrop against which the stars can shine.

There are some truly brilliant scenes and some thoroughly arresting images, too. George’s reflection in a puddle of spilled whisky is stunning, a beautifully composed shot of a busy staircase almost looks like a monochrome Escher painting. Perhaps best of all is Peppy’s canoodling with George’s suit-jacket: as it hangs from a hatstand she loops her arms through it and caresses herself with her own hand. Instantly the inanimate jacket becomes a character in itself. It’s not original but it is perfectly played and shot.

One of the most striking things about The Artist is the sheer economy of the medium. Working in the silent tradition ensures that the storytelling must be effective and concise: there is simply no room for flabbiness. With that in mind, Hazanavicius has produced a wonderfully effective, compelling movie which says more without words than most filmmakers could manage with millions.

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