You’ve got to give it to Michel Hazanavicius. There weren’t plenty of directors in recent memory who had the audacity and élan to produce a full-length black-and-white silent motion picture in Academy ratio (that’s 1:33:1 screen ratio for the uninitiated), with barely any hint of dialogue and employing cinematic tools from an already bygone era of silent movies – intertitles, montages, screen wipes, fades, irises – in an age where our silverscreen is dominated by 3D and other cinematic trickery. Surely, we’ve gone all too cynical for this shit, and this breed of cinema is well dead and buried beneath the cobwebbed Hollywood back-catalogue that no one really cares ploughing through.
But we’re proven wrong. In The Artist, a defiantly and unabashedly romantic tribute to the golden age of silent movies, Hazanavicius has created something that most films these days fail to do – taking a simple concept and transcending it to pure, glorious entertainment. And Hazanavicius makes it all so utterly convincing that The Artist looks and feels like it may have well been made in the 1930’s, a time when cinematic stalwarts were fashioning masterpieces – Murnau, Lang, Borzage, Hitchcock, Chaplin and Griffiths. There are wonderful, loving touches that pays homage to these old masters, the mobile cameras of Murnau, the thematic cues of Hitchcock and even the famous breakfast scene in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is replicated. But it never descends down to mere pastiche. The closest it can be compared to silent film is F. W. Murnau’s immortal Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, where an egotistic yet sympathetic protagonist faces his own downfall as a good-hearted woman saves him from his total decline. Narrative-wise, it’s closer to the rise-and-fall tales of A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard and Citizen Kane, albeit set during the arrival of the sound era, which threatened the careers of many silent stars (many of whom turned out to squeak like chipmunks on the speakers, and many of whom disappeared into oblivion).
I’m sure there are a handful of snobs who would laugh and snort at The Artist‘s anti-protean simplicities, or unfortunate ones who haven’t seen enough silent films to truly appreciate its appeal, but reflecting in the context of our latter-day cinema, this is a bold, remarkable masterwork. To entertain crowds with the purest of emotions with the absence of dialogues is no mean feat. It takes a lot of visual storytelling to make a silent film work in today’s standards, and in itself, The Artist is an achievement. Kudos also to its two leads (and a magnificent dog), who all encompass the emotional spectrum (yes, including the dog). Jean Dujardin, who looks like a cross between Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks, hams it up in the beginning but beautifully performs George Valentin throughout. The scene where the film-within-a-film The German Affair is shot, when he turns from funny and loquacious to smouldering and smug, we know this guy was born to play this role. And French darling Bérénice Bejo lights up the screen as sound-era starlet Peppy Miller, whose rise into fame has brought the entire sound-vs-silent war into surface. But her charming, effervescent screen presence will win you over, quietly resilient and virtuous, as she surreptitiously tries to save Valentin’s downward career trajectory. And that dog Uggy deserves the Oscar for Best Canine Performance, if there ever is one.
Hands down, the most rapturous moviegoing experience in 2011. For all its worth, The Artist is much better than the entire output of the Hollywood industry put together during the last calendar year. Sure, it’s simplistic, but so was Murnau’s Sunrise and a handful of Chaplin films. This is a glorious throwback to a bygone age when a wordless sequence made audiences laugh, cry and heart bouncing in pure joy.