Berenice Bejo and Malcolm McDowell in The Artist
When a film is released to universal praise and adoration with a poster plastered in five star reviews and glowing tributes, it’s instinctive to look for faults with it. It’s an awful habit that I’m sure has ruined films for me that I would have otherwise enjoyed, especially if it is a film that I have been looking forward to seeing, On this occasion though, I couldn’t help but feel that for all the reviews, acclaim, hype and awards buzz, The Artist somehow hadn’t quite been praised enough.
Set between 1927 and 1933 it focuses on ageing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dejardin) as his livelihood is threatened by the introduction of sound to cinema. Following the successful opening night of his latest film, whilst playing for the crowd and press he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), whom he helps get a small part in his next release. The plot then follows a familiar path, not dissimilar to A Star is Born, as his declining career is overshadowed by her meteoric rise to stardom. Much like Charlie Chaplin in real life, Valentin perseveres with silent film into the sound era, but unlike the success Chaplin had with City Lights and Modern Times, Valentin’s self-financed silent flick tanks, and, coupled with the Wall Street Crash, he is financially ruined.
John Goodman in The Artist
Shot on colour stock but converted to monochrome the silent era aesthetic is perfectly captured, the film is a true work of genius in design. Much like Martin Scorsese’s recent release Hugo, The Artist wears its cineliteracy on its sleeve. Valentin is a perfect cross between Douglas Fairbanks, whose own career was damaged by the introduction of the talkies, and Maurice Chevalier, whereas Peppy Miller seems based in part on Clara Bow. Two scenes beautifully pay homage to Citizen Kane, whereas Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo is also skilfully used. But that is not to take away from the beguiling originality director Michel Hazanavicius has displayed in this masterpiece, with one scene in particular, a breathtaking dream sequence, using diegetic sound for the first time in the film to devastating effect. To further describe the scene would not do it justice; it simply has to be seen on the big screen.
Hazanavicius’ courage to make a silent film in black and white for a modern audience fed on anything but patient and measured cinema has been justifiably rewarded by the box office and critical success The Artist has received. He may well have made the best film about film since Robert Altman’s The Player. A strong supporting cast including John Goodman, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell (not to mention the scene wonderful Uggie as Valentin’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier) all contribute fantastic performances, bettered only by the two superb leads. This is undoubtedly as important a film as any that has been released in the last twenty years, as close to perfection as a film can ever really be. With one of the most emotionally effective and rewarding endings imaginable, The Artist is much more than just a tribute to film; it’s a true masterpiece in filmmaking.
The Artist is showing at Broadway until Thursday 26 January with a Bringing Up Baby screening on Tuesday 24 January
The Artist official website