It might be a sign of the increasingly depressing times that the two most straightforwardly enjoyable and entertaining films I’ve seen in the last few months have both been love letters to the early days of cinema and its power to uplift the spirit of the downtrodden masses in an age of economic hardship. Both Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which I’ve gushed about here) and The Artist, written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, are set in the early 1930s and feature key sequences showing audiences being enthralled by the exuberance and panache of silent movies, and both films succeed in relaying that excitement and emotional involvement to the modern audience. The approaches taken by the two film-makers are however strikingly different. Whereas Hugo is eventually revealed as an intimate family-themed tale that’s presented via unapologetically modern means (computer generated imagery, 3D, impossibly vertiginous and supple camera moves in places), The Artist is on the surface played completely straight: black and white, academy ratio-ed, a slightly gauzy picture quality and nothing on the soundtrack bar a surging and melodramatic orchestral score. As it turns out, it’s definitely more sophisticated than its outward appearance and simple plot might lead you to suspect, and there are one or two highly effective convention-breaking touches that the director couldn’t resist dropping in, but for the main part there’s nothing here that an audience member from 1932 would find notably avant garde.
The story concerns George Valentin, a handsome and ebullient leading man whose pride and secret lack of self-confidence prevent him from rising to the challenge of the advent of talking pictures, a challenge that his former fan and now top box office draw Peppy Miller has overcome with considerable success. It’s a deliberately hackneyed rise and fall narrative, but one of the chief delights of The Artist is the gusto and skill with which the film lets its audience in on the joke of the well-worn grooves it’s riding while simultaneously affording them a great deal of pleasure and emotional engagement nonetheless. This is no mean trick, and it couldn’t have been achieved without an absolutely meticulous attention to detail: the leads are perfectly cast, and given the absence of dialogue their physical appearance had to be spot on, and is (Jean Dujardin is square-jawed and immaculately groomed as Valentin, and Bérénice Bejo could be straight out of a news reel about the flapper phenomenon), cars and clothes and buildings are entirely authentic, and the dramatically lit, high contrast photography is just beautiful. Even when familiar actors like John Goodman and James Cromwell pop up the illusion remains intact, as their craggy but wise faces fit right into the feel of the piece. I didn’t spot a false note anywhere (though I did notice a large section of the score of Vertigo underpinning the film’s climax),
The Artist is a real delight, for once a film that does deliver on its promise of being different from your run-of-the-mill cinema experience. Given its subject and form this is definitely one to see on the big screen.