Review: The Artist

Directed by: Michel Hazanvicius
Written by:Michel Hazanvicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle
Released: January 26, 2012
Grade: A-

I have a few friends who often complain about foreign films.  They hate going to a cinema and having to spend two hours reading words on a screen.  I think I’ve found the answer to their problems.  The Artist may be a French film but they won’t have to worry about subtitles.  Why?  Well, because it’s a black & white silent film with no dialogue whatsoever.

I say that somewhat jokingly because the idea of such a film may be more of a turn off.  It’ll be interesting to see how The Artist fares at the box-office.  It’s been touted as the best picture frontrunner for the upcoming Academy Awards but how easy will it be to get bums on seats?

The movie has been praised by critics since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May.  The powerful Weinstein Company immediately saw its potential and bought it for distribution in the United States and United Kingdom.  They sat on it for a few months, slipped it into a few other film festivals, and waited for the positive word-out-mouth to spread.  Now, just weeks from the Oscars ceremony, it’s being released widely across the globe to cash in on the free awards season publicity.

I was lucky enough to see the movie last September at the Toronto Film Festival.  In my notebook I wrote that it contained “so much creativity”.  That’s easily its strongest attribute.  The idea itself is ingenious – a black & white silent film about black & white silent filmmaking.  This overlap helps create much of the film’s comedy.  It reminded me a little of the underrated Pleasantville, released back in 1998.

The story begins in 1927 where George Valentin (Dujardin) is one of the biggest silent movie stars in the business.  Audiences have fallen in love with his infectious smile and his over-exuberant facial expressions.  It seems everyone’s a fan… the biggest being George himself.  There’s an amusing moment where he looks at a painting of himself on the wall and nods his head with approval.  He’s a happy guy who is revelling in his celebrity status.

His happy-go-lucky lifestyle is about to change however with the arrival of “talkies”.  George is a traditionalist and refuses to adapt to this new era of filmmaking.  He persists with his silent films and soon falls out of favour with the public.  People no longer want to sit in soundless theatres.  People no longer want to watch George Valentin.

Can he find a way to reinvigorate himself?  The answer lies in a beautiful movie starlet named Peppy Miller (Bejo).  Several years ago, it was George who was centre stage and it was Peppy who was looking for her big break into the industry.  The roles have now been reversed.  Peppy has always had a soft-spot for George and she’s doing everything she can to get him back on the big screen.

The first half of The Artist is amazing.  There is so much wit and you’re likely to be as smiling as much as George Valentin.  There’s a dream sequence (which I won’t spoil) that left critics laughing hysterically at the Toronto press screening.  It actually took me a few seconds to work out what they were all laughing about.  It’s beautifully done.

My only criticism is that the comedic elements work better than the dramatic elements.  The film’s pace slows in the second half and we get bogged down in repetitive melodrama.  We can see George’s career going down the tubes but why did it need to drag on for so long?

It left me with thinking that this story should have been stronger.  I realise being a silent black & white film is essential to the film’s charm but if you were to tell the same tale in colour and with dialogue, would people find it all that interesting?  I’m not convinced.

Whilst I don’t think it deserves the Oscar for best picture, The Artist is still a great film.  Frenchman Jean Dujardin and the Argentinean-born Bérénice Bejo are delightful in the leading roles.  Given the many award nominations he has already received, Dujardin has been learning English to help with his acceptance speeches.  It’s nice to see.  With some great facial expressions of his own, John Goodman is also terrific as a studio boss.

We all know the saying that a picture paints a thousands words.  The Artist has taken that concept and put it into cinematic form.  It’s funny, it’s bold and it’s creative.  Do see it.