The Artist is done in the style of a traditional silent movie which were the norm before sound was introduced. In a movie going age when “bigger and louder” is the main thing on the menu, this is an unique film to cherish, if for nothing else than it offers a breath of fresh air.
Taking place in 1927 right before the introduction of talkies, the film follows silent movie megastar George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who, along with his faithful dog sidekick, is as big a star as you can get. All that changes when sound cinema is introduced, making him all but obsolete just as his newfound love interest, Peppy Miller, becomes the big star of talking pictures.
The Artist might be this year’s ultimate charming movie, providing laughs and compelling drama all at once, all the while harking back to a bygone area of cinema that has a style all its own and charms that no talking picture can ever replicate. Writer director Michel Hazanavicius is evidently keenly aware of this and has done his research to make sure this as authentic a silent film experience as possible.
Having said that, the film is very knowing in how it goes about presenting its style. The techniques are all there – title cards, exaggerated acting, orchestral score and so forth – but it also has a few extra tricks up its sleeve to spice things up. For instance, there are two instances of sound in the film; I won’t spoil what or when they are but let’s just say they’re superbly done, almost snapping you out of an experience you’ve forgotten is about as alien to modern day movie goers as you could get. These moments act as reminders of the fundamental differences between silent and talking cinema, while beyond that simply being fun and memorable moments to get you talking post-credits.
The Artist wouldn’t work as well as it does without its amazing cast, particularly lead actor Jean Dujardin. Most known before this for being the star of the spy parody series OSS 117, Dujardin is a magnetic, charming presence as George Valentin – a character clearly inspired by a number of real stars of the era – not least because he has a wonderfully expressive face to convey the, in this case exaggerated, range of emotions needed throughout. The supporting players shouldn’t be ignored, though, including Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller, who almost by accident takes the place as the new star of talking cinema, James Cromwell as George’s faitfhul helper and John Goodman as the bossy studio exec who seems all too real.
The film has drawn a lot of comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s recent love letter to early cinema, Hugo, and rightly so. Both are attempting, in today’s film world dominated by blockbusters, to remind people of where the art form came from. But while I was loved what Scorsese did with his film, as an ode to and a celebration of the early days of film The Artist is superior. Hugo often feels like it’s showing, while The Artist feels like it is.
While the silent, black and white aspect is the hook for this film, it is not a gimmick. This is an authentic silent film through and through, with even its most creative moments (i.e. the select use of sound) feeling genuine. Beautifully executed, wonderfully acted and wholly charming, The Artist is sure to be a strong contender at this year’s Oscars, for everything from its cast to the film itself. A truly special motion picture that even people who have never seen a silent film before can enjoy.