It can be tricky watching a film like The Artist at this point in the game. Riding high on buzz from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, this charming French film from director Michel Hazanavicius (creator of the OSS 177 series) has a lot to live up to. Having steamrolled through award show season, and placing as the odds on favourite to win Best Picture at this month’s Academy Awards, Australian audiences finally get to see what all the fuss is about of this black and white, silent film. Don’t you worry, there’s reason to fuss.
Set in Hollywood, 1927, The Artist is a gorgeous paean to the glory days of not only silent 1920s cinema, but the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, too. Filmed with striking black and white cinematography in the old-fashioned academy ratio (it looks like a square box, rather than widescreen), Hazanavicius, who also wrote the screenplay, has made a lovely confection of a film that uses classic cinematic methods to tell a rather well-worn story in a way that is fresh to modern audiences. That “fresh” isn’t really “fresh” at all, but more a loving tribute to cinema past, is just part of the fun. And unlike, say, War Horse, its tributes aren’t cloyingly manipulative, but spirited and perky.
While American actors John Goodman (Red State), James Cromwell (Babe), Missi Pyle(Galaxy Quest), Penelope Ann Miller (Chaplin) and Beth Grant (Donnie Darko) dot the cast, it is the French actors who shine brightest. Jean Dujardin (Little White Lies) stars as George Valentin, a silent movie star who happens across a young upstart, Bérénice Bejo (A Knight’s Tale) as Peppy Miller. And so begins a tale of true love with all the required ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs that you expect from a period romance. It could’ve been easy for The Artist to be little more than a minor divergence, but the energy and pizzazz that these actors exhibit–particularly Dujardin in a truly international star-making role–makes it work. Dujardin and Bejo have previously starred together in OSS 117: Cairo, A Nest of Spies, with the chemistry clearly already there, Hazanavicius was wise to cast them again.
A soundtrack that interpolates Ludovic Bource’s original music with famous cinematic works, plus striking production and costume design adds to the zesty flavour. If the film loses momentum when Dujardin and Bejo aren’t on screen together then that’s more or less easily forgiven by the joy they provide when they are. If The Artist inspires just one person to investigate the history of silent cinema then that’s just gravy, but for now The Artist is a ringing endorsement of cinema as the greatest of art across the generations.
Oh, and there’s a cute dog too!
The Artist is released in Australia on February 2nd
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Beth Grant, Malcolm McDowell and Uggie the Dog