The Artist (2011)

The Artist (France, 2011)
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell

IMDb Top 250: #142 (19/5/12)

There are many reasons to be cynical as a film fan when the circus of awards season rolls into town. The means by which awards are decided range from the mainly sensible (BAFTAs) to the morbidly stupid (Golden Globes). Great films are ignored because of their mainstream success, while acclaim is given to works that no sensible person would pay to see. The often obscene luxury of the ceremonies is matched only by the industry's bottomless appetite for self-appreciation. And the best film never, ever wins Best Picture: it probably won't even get nominated.But in the midst of all this bitterness and vitriol, it is easy to lose sight of the occasional cause for genuine joy which gets released in the run-up to the Oscars. The fact that The Artist has now swept the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, and looks certain to win big at the Oscars, should not prejudice or tarnish its status as a very fine film. The awards campaign may have inflated its status, at least artistically, but there is still much to enjoy without feeling any guilt about towing the industry line.Apart from its copious nominations, there are several reasons to be sceptical about The Artist. The involvement of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the king-makers of awards season, recalls all the Oscar-bait banter that swirled around The King's Speech this time last year. This isn't helped by the backlash against the film led by Kim Novak: in an advert in Variety, she accused its composer of "rape" for sampling Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo. Finally, there are accusations that the film is a gimmick, which has tricked BAFTA and Academy members, and which in five years' time will be all but forgotten.But whatever one's feelings about the Weinsteins, or Kim Novak, the point which most needs challenging is the final argument. The stories about people demanding refunds because they didn't know The Artist was a silent film says more about the way the film was marketed that the film itself (the intelligence of said punters is still up for debate). There is nothing about the content or style of The Artist to suggest that the filmmakers are cashing in on recent trends, or that silence is being perceived as the new 3D.Like many films about filmmaking, The Artist is the product of someone with deep-rooted affection for cinema. Michel Hazanavicius chose to tell the story as a silent film because that seemed the most fitting and sensible way to do it. By replicating the dramatic and visual styles of 1920s Hollywood, he situates us in the period more evocatively than any film since Tim Burton's Ed Wood.If you were feeling especially harsh, you could quickly deconstruct the plot of The Artist into a muddle of different melodramas along a similar theme. From this viewpoint, it is essentially a romantic version of All About Eve, or A Star is Born with the genders reversed: a young actor rises at the expense of an established star, against the backdrop of some kind of technical sea-change.The film also bears resemblance to Singing in the Rain, in showing silent actors attempting to survive around the first talkies, and The Jazz Singer in the various technical changes which come with the advent of sound. There are also subtle hints to darker works, in particular Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: both the attempted suicide and the discovery of the auctioned possessions have a distinctly creepy tone, bringing back rich memories of Joan Crawford duelling with Bette Davis.Although widely referred to as a silent film, The Artist does utilise sound on two occasions. There is the final scene where the two stars perform a dance number and John Goodman's director expresses his approval. But far more effective is the nightmare sequence, where everything and everyone except Valentin can make a noise. This Lynchian sequence takes innocuous, everyday sounds, like a phone ringing, girls laughing or a dog barking, and turns them into weapons against the main character. The scene of the feather landing on the ground and producing a huge sound is as weird and unnerving as anything in Eraserhead.Like many of the films from which it borrows, The Artist is about how Hollywood has mistreated, and continues to mistreat, its stars. We have an image of the Golden Era of Hollywood as one where the stars had all the power, when in fact the studios were still firmly pulling the strings of both actors and directors. The film reminds us that the movie business has always been just that: actors are only worth something when they are in fashion. With the endless supply of young talent drawn to the glamour of Hollywood, it is easy to replace the old guard when fashions change.The message of The Artist is that different generations or movements in an art form can coexist, and it is important in celebrating contemporary filmmaking to remember where cinema came from. The commercial success of The Artist on top of all its awards proves that it is possible to have black-and-white in an age of colour, 2D in an supposed age of 3D, and silent in a world of sound. It is a both a soft-hearted tribute to the past and a call to arms to prevent further homogenisation in modern cinema.The biggest success of The Artist is that you are able to enjoy and appreciate it without feeling like you are being lectured, either about the history of cinema or your duty to uphold it for future generations. Within 20 minutes the fact that it is silent will have escaped you - you will be so drawn in by the story, and find the tone so warm and accessible, that it will seem like any other film. It is demonstrable proof, like Inception, that art and entertainment are not competing entities, and that the public will pay in their droves to see intelligent filmmaking regardless of what form it takes.The Artist is a film which genuinely has something for everyone. It quite literally lives up to Geoffrey Rush's line in Shakespeare in Love about audiences wanting "comedy, love and a bit with a dog". The film has a wry sense of humour, using the music and inter-titles to good deadpan effect. The love story, while familiar and melodramatic, is believable from the outset. The pathos is genuine, particularly the scene of the down-and-out Valentin looking at his reflection in a shop window. And the dog, played by Uggie, is very good.The human performances in The Artist are all of a high standard. Both Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are charismatic and convincing; they clearly understand the acting styles of melodrama and silent cinema, and so we are spared anything which is self-consciously over-the-top. John Goodman is very good as the cigar-chewing director, and James Cromwell looks the part at Valentin's butler. Special mention should go to the cameo performances of Missi Pyle and Malcolm McDowell: neither is on screen for very long, but both are brilliant physical actors whose slightest move tells you everything you need to know.The Artist is not a perfect film, or the masterpiece that many have made it out to be. The third act drags a little bit, the music is repetitive, and the familiar nature of both its story and characters will leave some feeling they have seen it all before. But it remains a joyous and highly entertaining watch which should not be frowned upon if it wins Best Picture. Like The Jazz Singer before it, future generations may remember it more as an industrial point than for its own merits. All this generation can do is embrace it and enjoy it, and we should feel no guilt for doing so.

Verdict: A genuinely joyous film