It would be naïve and irresponsible of me to write this review without the assumption that readers of this website are not already aware of the near deafening Oscar buzz that surrounds The Artist. It would also be naïve of me to pretend that my extensive coverage of said Oscar buzz did not affect my expectations before seeing the film. With an excess of Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations and eight critics groups already declaring it the best film of the year, it is not unfair to say my hopes were unfairly high.
Luckily, The Artist delivers on just about every level.
French director Michel Hazanavicius crafts a film that is wonderfully simple, yet incredibly intricate. It perfectly replicates the most playful and masterful silent films of the 1920s, yet manages a tone that feels right at home in the 21st Century. Much like Charlie Chaplin, Hazanavicius is much more interested in sentimentality than psychoanalysis and he accomplished his goals with fantastic precision. The best thing that The Artist does is demonstrate the timelessness of truly great cinema. Despite its familiarity, the movie is not solely about mimicry. It is about the uncertainty that comes with an ever-changing medium and the proof that whatever happens, cinema will endure.
The story is purposefully comparable to the silent to sound era film Singin’ in the Rain (with an explicit homage to Cosmo Brown). In 1927 George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film actor at the peak of his career when he is blindsided by the industry’s sudden transition to sound. Meanwhile young actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who connected with Valentin when she was an extra in one of his early films , catapults to stardom in talkies while Valentin’s career comes to a halt. The two frequently happen upon one another and their stories are parallel, but they spend little time on screen together.
The opening act of the film is jam packed with vaudevillian comic bits that are executed with perfect timing by Dujardin and Bejo. There is a moment early on where we see Valentin’s reaction to an audience’s applause that cleverly establishes the film as a silent picture and begins a series of brilliantly imaginative interactions that are easy to imagine in a Chaplin picture. There is a clear connection between Valentin and Miller that is adorably played out through their indirect interactions.
Hazanavicius does a lot more to re-create the films of the 1920s than remove the sound and shoot in black and white. The costumes and scenery have a lived-in look, like they’ve been on dozens of film sets before this particular motion picture. The dance scenes show the actors in full frame and are shot in one take, just as Fred Astaire used to demand. Everything down to the blocking of the characters and the performers’ make-up looks like it was shot in the 1920s. Any good filmmaker could craft a film the looks like a silent film, but where Hazanavicius achieves true greatness is with his endlessly imaginative direction. It was like he put himself in the mindset of a silent era director, using the limitation as an opportunity for creativity, rather than an impediment.
Hazanavicius actually has an advantage over the silent filmmakers by having new technology at his disposal. One of the best scenes of the film comes in a dream sequence where Valentin finds himself unable to assimilate in a world of sound. The combination of homage to classic cinema with the use of modern technology establishes the timelessness of the medium. This is a movie for people who love movies and it certainly delivers the magic.
Dujardin and Bejo both deserve a lot of credit for the film’s success as they make a perfect slapstick duo. They resist the urge to parody silent film actors by being too expressive and instead deliver performances that have a perfect touch of subtlety. The timing on their physical bits is pitch perfect and they each establishing reoccurring character motifs, which every silent film character must have. The cast of supporting turns are being less talked about, but are no less fantastic. John Goodman couldn’t be more perfectly cast as the greedy head of a movie studio. One of my favorite performances comes from James Cromwell who displays heartbreaking loyalty that rivals that of Valentin’s adorable dog.
There are some pacing issues in the second and third act, mostly because the film abandons its humorous tone for a sentimental one. However, the first act is so packed with moment after moment of pure joy that any of those problems are easily forgivable. Seated in the theatre I felt like the type of audience member that is often portrayed in silent films. I found myself laughing heartily at the slapstick, gasping audibly at the suspense, and choking back tears at the denouement. Mostly I just sat back wide-eyed and enjoyed the pure magic of great cinema.
Bottom Line: The Artist is movie magic with a simple story and meticulous craft.