Should I Watch..? 'The Artist'
What's the big deal?
The Artist is a French comedy drama film released in 2011 and was written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. The film is deliberately made in a style similar to the classic silent movies of the 1920's and 30's and follows the volatile relationship between an experienced actor and the beautiful starlet he falls for as Hollywood moves from silent cinema to "talkies". The film stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo with supporting turns from John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and the highly talented canine actor Uggie. The film received a lot of love from critics and it earned a total of five Academy Awards from ten nominations as well as many other awards across the world. It was the first Best Film winner in black-and-white since 1960's The Apartment and the first silent film to win since the very first Oscars in 1927. Despite a initially limited run in cinemas, the film still went on to earn more than $133 million worldwide.
What's it about?
In Hollywood in 1927, silent film icon George Valentin is posing for photos outside the premier of his latest film whilst surrounded by his adoring public. Suddenly, a young woman called Peppy Miller falls from the crowd into Valentin who laughs the accident off but is instantly smitten. After spotting Peppy at an audition for dancers, Valentin insists that she is cast opposite him in his next movie despite the wishes of studio boss, Al Zimmer. With a little guidance from Valentin who draws a beauty spot on her face which becomes her trademark, Peppy finds herself quickly becoming the queen of Hollywood.
However, Valentin is about to find his own world fall apart. His wife Doris is growing increasingly paranoid about his relationship with Peppy while Zimmer announces that he will no longer produce silent movies as "talkies" become increasingly popular. As Valentin's career crashes down around him, he is taken aback when his latest film is trumped by Peppy's own movie - a revelation that brings him to the brink of despair...
Penelope Ann Miller
Release Date (UK)
30th December, 2011
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Best Film, Best Actor (Dujardin), Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score
Academy Award Nominations
Best Supporting Actress (Bejo), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction
What's to like?
I'm struggling to think of any film with as much charm and good humour as The Artist which squeezes in so much charisma that George Clooney gets jealous. The film isn't just a recreation of silent movies but a love letter to that style of cinema. The film looks every inch like an authentic relic from the era (if you ignore the high definition) and makes the film feel very different from anything else made for a long time. The advantage of shooting a mostly silent film is that you can cast actors from anywhere based on looks alone and Dujardin is every inch the screen idol, mimicking the likes of Clark Gable with precision and grace. Bejo, the wife of director Hazanavicius, also looks fabulous on the screen while Goodman easily inhabits the role of the traditional studio boss, complete with fat cigar permanently present in his mouth.
Narratively, the film isn't too far removed from the likes of A Star Is Born showing the dynamic between two lovers whose careers are moving in different directions. But the film feels more light-hearted than any of those adaptations, thanks in no small part to Uggie. The Parsons Russell Terrier easily steals the show in every scene he's in, performing his role in such a way that he deserves to be recognised alongside his human co-stars. He brings such a level of joy to the film that I can't think of any other animal in any film contributing as much as Uggie does here. It's just a delight and a novelty to watch and remains as unique as it did at the time.
- The film was shot at 22 frames per second (FPS) as opposed to the industry standard of 24 frames. Most silent films were shoot at a rate between 14-24 FPS to make the action appear to be faster than it actually was. When sound came to be incorporated in film-making, the FPS rate was switched to 24 to make editing sound easier.
- The role of Valentin is supposedly based on two real-life actors who struggled with the transition to "talkies", Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert. Both men made the names in silent swashbuckler movies and both had died prematurely before the end of the 30's. As Valentin, Dujardin became the first French actor to win the Best Actor movie.
- According to Dujardin, the movie was filmed in just 35 days. However, rehearsals for the final dance scene alone took five months and took place in the same studio that Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly rehearsed in for Singin' In The Rain in 1952.
What's not to like?
However, the film is not all sunshine and rainbows and not just because of its monochrome appearance. The Artist isn't afraid to show us the darker side of despair when Valentin's career hits the skids. From the disturbing dream sequence (one of only two scenes in the film to use sound) to the grim and somewhat terrifying fire, the film makes it apparent that behind the glamour of Hollywood that there are often great personal costs and sacrifices to be made. Arguably, this isn't a shock - the same probably applies to many stars' private lives today - but it's certainly a jolt to the system after you've finished laughing at Jack the dog sharing the breakfast table with his adoring master.
Obviously, the film has next to no dialogue and also restricts the number of title cards which might make following the narrative a little tricky for viewers not used to them. But you can almost fill in the blanks yourself due to the performances of the cast who revive the often-forgotten art of facial expression. The soundtrack is also full of twinkly pianos as well as pieces taken from other films which might quickly grate on your nerves after a while or take you out of the picture if you recognise any other musical pieces. But if it does then I politely suggest you get out more.
Should I watch it?
It might not be to everybody's tastes but The Artist is a brilliantly produced, wonderfully performed and charming film that can't help but put a smile on your face. Dujardin does his career a power of good (although it hasn't exactly opened Hollywood's doors for him) in a film that is simply fun to watch. It's well thought-out, surprisingly, different and everything you might want from a film. C'est magnifique!
Great For: Francophiles, film historians, dog lovers, anyone looking for something different
Not So Great For: black-and-white snobs, the unimaginative
What else should I watch?
Although The Artist might be unusual for being in black-and-white, it is far from the only modern movie to use this format. Most famously, Sin City and its sequel A Dame To Kill For uses black-and-white to imitate its graphic novel origins with occasional flashes of colour as does Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, although Robert Rodriguez's ultra-violent comic adaptation is just as difficult to watch but for very different reasons. The makers of The Good German took things even further, shooting in monochrome using lens and other equipment from the 1940's to try and achieve a genuine look of film noir. No doubt Woody Allen fans would also recommend Manhattan as well although I can't claim to have watched it so far.
Silent movies, obviously, have become more of a fad these days but before The Jazz Singer in 1927, silent films produced some of cinema's all-time classic films. From the pomp and ceremony of Metropolis to the creeping horror of films like Nosferatu and M, film-makers seemed more imaginative and inventive back then to get their vision on screen without using the lazy CG techniques used today. Each of these films seemed to become huge epics (well, maybe not Nosferatu!) with vast casts and a genuine artistic flair. If you take anything away from these articles I write then I hope you become more receptive to films outside the norm like silent movies and dusty monochrome classics. Try them out.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox