There was a strange moment just before the beginning of The Artist when the cinema fell silent. Not just silent in the ‘shut up now, the film’s about to start’ sort of way, but silent in an almost tense anticipation of the daunting prospect of spending two hours watching a film, in silence. Well, not actual silence, but free of dialogue. Only music. This strange and daunting prospect seemed to hit home simultaneously as the audience allowed a few nervous laughs to escape. We’ve all seen the trailers and had signed up to the novelty of watching a silent film in 2012, but could the film actually hold its own? I was willing to find out.
The film opens with a silent film being played to a packed audience (ironically) whilst the cast and crew await backstage. It’s all very disorienting as you get to grips with a) the costume dramatics b) the black and whiteness c) the absence of dialogue. But, before you can decide whether it works for you or not, the film has hurtled off into its narrative with an energy that sweeps you along. See, The Artist is a full on silent movie, by which I mean it leans into the genre (if you can call it that) with gusto. The lack of dialogue is played for laughs from the outset, and the performances are a broadly energetic and expressive as they need to be with literally no voices to help you along. The orchestral score is bold and grandiose, whilst the cut-captions are sparse and comedic. Even the black and white is richly tonal, offering a feast of cinematic greys.
In all of this the film is almost a charm offensive for the Silent Movie. Lovely moment follows Lovely Moment at such a pace that you find yourself falling in love with the very notion of silent cinema as much as following the ups and downs of arrogant-yet-loveable silent era star George Valentin and plucky up-and-comer Peppy Miller. I found myself revelling in the quirks and joys of the film on a functional level, unwittingly forming close attachments to the central characters. The Artist is a proper silent film, complete with melodrama, crude plot avenues, broad brushstrokes of character, overblown acting, gags, punchlines, physical comedy and even mugging at the camera acting (which Peppy lambasts upon the advent of the ‘talkie’). Yet, somehow, the novelty factor of these outmoded conventions soon develops into charm, and then delight. How?
Well, for one, this is a lovingly rendered project. There is so much care and attention put into making the film pay due respects to a dead cinematic era that it is almost Pixar-esque in its beauty. Each 1920s swipe, each wink, each soft focus close up (I think there were two) is a little charming in-joke that you find yourself cooing at, even if you don’t appreciate the original source material. Nostalgia is infectious, after all.
But The Artist is far more than a film about silent era cinema that is cleverly played out in the contextual style. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted a proper film with subtle brush strokes of character, moments of real drama, pain and pathos, humour and ambivalences. It’s as rich in emotional tone as it is in its shades of grey, anchored by Lovely Moments of humour and charm. The performances are considered and genuine, balancing pantomime with real, actual acting. The emotional hits ring true, despite the melodrama they also come with.
Now, all of that you’ve just read is what I was busy enjoying when I should have been thinking about what the film is actual about, which stands as testament to how engaging and diverting it is, on a structural level. Thematically, it doesn’t disappoint.
The Artist is a love note to film itself. As we fall in love with the quirks of the silent movie, we fall in love with something that feels like the essence of cinema. Valentin, beautifully played by Jean Dujardin is an embodiment of this, and we fall in love with him too. So does Peppy Miller, equally beautifully portrayed by Bérénice Bejo. As a representation of the ‘future’ of film, it is no accident that she falls in love with the personification of film’s past. She clings to it and wishes it to survive, against the odds, just as we do. Half way in, I found myself just hoping the film could maintain its momentum through the final act, as evidence that this hit of quirky nostalgia could indeed hold its own in a cinematic landscape populated by 3D features and do-anything CGI.
The good news is that it can. The Artist is a rare thing of honesty and beauty that enchants on multiple levels. A silent film that speaks to the heart, in volumes. Aw.
PS: With all of this, The Artist still cannot be dismissed as an inconsequential cinematic bauble. It makes serious comment on the death of innocence that came with the death of the silent age of Hollywood. The Film’s overriding optimism and charm isn’t therefore simply preferable, but absolutely necessary in promoting the essence of film that it explores. Food for thought with a spoonful of sugar.