Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, the story follows silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and young extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). With the advent of sound Peppy finds her big break, and just as her star ascends George finds himself being left behind.
The Artist opens with the charismatic Valentin, on stage energetically mugging for the camera alongside his trusty Jack Russell. With echoes of Clark Gable, Jean Dujardin plays a charismatic and comical lead, winking for the camera and blowing kisses to his adoring fans.
Valentin literally bumps into dancer Peppy Miller outside the theatre, and immediately sparks fly between the pair. Bérénice Bejo is flawlessly beautiful as Peppy Miller, but importantly injects the charm and personality of a 1920s film star into her character. Reminiscent of a young Joan Crawford, Miller is the archetypal good-time flapper girl.
Dujardin effortlessly shines as the flamboyant George Valentin, however he also plays the intimate and vulnerable with great poignancy. Similarly, Bejo displays great depth and an endearing sensitivity, as she struggles to witness the fall of the once great George Valentin.
Both leads have that unmistakeable star quality, which enhances the authenticity of The Artist as an old Hollywood film. Dujardin and Bejo are both excellent close-up actors able to present a wide emotional range, which is essential in a genre that cannot rely on the power of speech to drive the narrative forward.
The Artist also has an excellent supporting cast, including the poker-faced James Cromwell as Valentin’s driver Clifton. John Goodman plays a scene-stealing overweight thunderous studiohead (which appears to be a fantastic lampoon of Harvey Weinstein), and together with George’s dog Jack, they provide the biggest laughs in the film. Both Cromwell and Goodman are superb in their roles, creating characters that feel real without the aid of having a voice.
Due to the restraints of silent filmmaking, a good deal of emphasis falls on the use of non-diegetic soundtrack to enhance the visual narrative. The Artist is dependant on the musical score, which is subtle when it needs to be subtle, and dramatic when the occasion calls for it. The only time the score is discarded is during Valentin’s fit in his dressing room as he breaks everything around him. The sudden use of sound is shocking and deafening, provoking audience empathy and intensifying his nightmarish circumstances.
Silent cinema is an unforgiving format, if there are too many new developments and if the range is too wide, the audience is easily lost, so it is a credit to The Artist that it is engaging throughout. French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius not only faces the challenge of the silent genre, but he creates a visual masterpiece that is thoroughly engaging and emotive.
Hazanavicius obviously has a lot of respect for old Hollywood, and this is conveyed in his amazing attention to detail. Everything from the cinematography, direction and acting, to the lighting, score and costumes, brilliantly capture the magic of silent cinema. It is not important whether this is a homage or pastiche, what matters is that this is an exciting and original piece of cinema.
Dealing with themes of pride, fame and vanity, The Artist is a nostalgic story of interlinked destinies. The film goes so much against current trends, it’s almost anachronistic, however it is something new, something special, a beautiful and poignant love story which oozes with the passion and enthusiasm of all who were involved in making it. Please see it.
The Artist is released 30th December.
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