silent film

Review: The Artist

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The Pitch: They don’t make ’em like they used to…

The Review: Sat here, trying to find words for The Artist, feels like the world’s biggest irony. I write this review a couple of days after much has been made in the news of people walking out in a screening in Liverpool after not realising what they’d let themselves in for. Cinema has been evoking strong reactions in people ever since the Lumière brothers first charged people to sit and watch pictures moving on a wall over 115 years ago, and competition ever since from upstarts such as radio, television and the internet have caused cinema to attempt to innovate. Sound, colour, wide screens and even 3D have come and stayed over the years, so the idea of watching a film that abandons all of those concepts seems to be deliberately obtuse, clinging sentimentally to past glories without being willing to innovate. But the techniques of cinema worked successfully through all of those early years, and it wasn’t that cinema was evolving as it had exhausted all of its possible uses for the latest fads; it was evolving to survive.

So if you’re going to make a film in black and white, without dialogue, in the Academy ratio (1.37:1, closer to an old cathode ray tube TV than the widescreen LCDs of today), then what better subject to take than that loss of innocence and the passing of one of the first great eras of the medium? George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a star of the silver screen, but when talkies come round, he’s reluctant to embrace them, either unwilling or unable to make the transition. By that point, though, he’s already had his first brush with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a girl he literally bumps into outside a premiere; suddenly she’s an overnight sensation but he risks being left behind. Despite that, there’s an undeniable chemistry between George and Peppy, even though George is thoroughly domesticated, with both a wife and a dog at home.

The distinction to be made with The Artist is that it’s not a film made exactly to mirror the silent films of the Twenties, not least because the advent of sound happens fairly early on in the narrative. While it’s black and white, largely (though not completely) silent and filmed in narrowscreen, it has the unmistakeable gloss and sheen of a film made with 21st century techniques. The cinematography is crisp, the soundtrack is much more in the style of a modern orchestral soundtrack and it’s a film filled with characters in close-up; widescreen was designed to capture epic vistas and sweeping scenery, and The Artist is an intimate story of people and relationships, ideally suited to the smaller screen width. (See it on a big enough screen, of course, and it’ll make little difference). The tricks and the effects are to pay homage to the films of the time, not to slavishly copy them, and there’s a number of very clever sequences which subvert expectations and use the throwback effects, especially the sound, to wonderful comic and dramatic effect.

It helps that the quality of the performances across the board is also impeccable. Carrying most of the meat of the film between them are a central trio formed of Dujardin, Bejo and a canine co-star who steals practically every scene he’s in. Dujardin has the perfect matinee idol look and is as comfortable with his anger as he is his charm; you could imagine Clark Gable having taken on the role if the film had been made eighty years or so earlier. Bejo is full of charm and charisma and it’s easy to see why George is so easily smitten, and the pair make a timeless couple. If there’s one thing that the casual viewer will end up remembering long after the viewing, though, it’s Uggie the dog, who’s even been on a promotional tour for the film, and his tricks and his faithfulness should melt the hardest of hearts. The cast is filled out by a cast of familiar American faces, notably John Goodman and James Cromwell, but none of them would look out of place in a film from an earlier era.

What has always been hard to conjure in cinema, regardless of the tools and techniques used to make it, is a quality almost indescribable; it’s a magical tone when performances, script and direction work in such harmony as to transport the viewer completely into the world of the film. Many films have endured even though their techniques have long since passed out of regular use, mostly because they have captured that quality. If you look at the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 films, nine of them are silent films, but eighty-nine have some black and white element; it’s actually more of a wonder that anyone made such a fuss. If only those Scousers who walked out had given the film more of a chance, because one of the films that already falls into both categories in the Top 250 is this one. It has that magic, and what Michel Hazanavicius and his cast have conjured up is spellbinding, enchanting and thoroughly deserving of that place on the list. The Artist takes techniques almost as old as cinema itself, and with a sprinkling of post-modern playfulness produces a film which will hopefully be entrancing audiences long after the current innovations have also passed into history.

Why see it at the cinema: This is a film that this blog was made for. Find the best cinema you can, see this at the busiest time possible, and get lost in the magic of cinema.

The Score: 10/10