The Artist Review
The highest praise I can make for The Artist is that it’s only when you reflect afterwards on the film that you realise just how brave and bold an experiment it has been. While you are watching it, you soon forget about how it is made and just appreciate it for what it is – a good movie that tells its story well and in a highly entertaining fashion. It’s only when you consider however that The Artist is actually a silent movie made in 2011, shot in black-and-white and projected in academy ratio, that you begin to appreciate not only just how much of a risk was taken by the director Michel Hazanavicius (previously known for his OSS 117 French spy spoofs), but just how brilliantly he has mastered the rare skill of pure visual storytelling.
Making a silent movie in 2011 isn’t impossible or even original of course – the Canadian filmmaker Guy Madden has been doing it for years in an avant-garde retro fashion – but what is different about Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist is that making his film as a silent movie is not just some gimmick, but it is completely integral to what the film and its story is about, and it’s approached with utmost fidelity and affection for that bygone era of classic silent Hollywood cinema of the of 1920s and 1930s. In fact, that’s also what the film is about, in its subject of a silent movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who at the height of his success, acclaim and popularity finds himself threatened by this new-fangled thing called talking movies.
As a film about movies, there are plenty of classic cinema references here if you want to look for them. George looks every inch the Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Clarke Gable movie-idol, the swashbuckling silent adventure movies he appears in are wonderfully recreated in pastiche, but The Artist also pays tribute to the glamour and magic of this period of Hollywood cinema in a way similar to Singing In The Rain, while at the same time hinting at the bitterness and the dark side of the movie industry in a way that is often reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard. It manages to strike this important balance by telling not just the story of George Valentin, but that of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whose star is rising just as George’s is declining.
The Artist is filmed with as much authenticity as possible, Hazanavicius – also a film historian of sorts in France as well as a filmmaker – not only shoots George’s silent movies in the classic style of the 20s, but he uses similar lighting techniques, shots and angles in the movie itself, going as far as to use Hollywood locations and the actual house and bed once owned by Mary Pickford in order to make it all feel as close to the period and the place as possible. Most importantly however – and this is where Hazanavicius differs considerably from someone like Guy Madden or even Mel Brooks – there is practically nothing in the storyline of The Artist, or in the method of playing out the storyline, that would be considered out-of-place in a film from the 1920s or early 1930s. There are no knowing winks here, no inappropriate love scenes, just a classic story told in a classic style through the performances of Dujardin and Bejo. John Goodman and particularly James Cromwell also deserve a mention, but Valentin’s delightful sidekick dog, Jack – since he can’t speak – is proof alone that you don’t need words to entertain and tell a story.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, nor is it easy to make a silent film in black-and-white with intertitles an attractive proposition for a modern audience, but the making of the film itself as a silent movie demonstrates of the power of this kind of filmmaking, and that’s evidently part of the intention. You never get the impression however that anything is forced or that the film is lacking anything by not having its characters speaking, but neither does the cleverness of the method ever take precedence over the actual story. Rediscovering the magic and glamour of the period, The Artist reminds us of the power of storytelling, and that it was precisely this – something that ironically became less important when characters were given a voice – that once made Hollywood great.