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The Artist

The Artist

Released Michel Hazanavicius
Director 6 January 2012

Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle
Writer(s) Michel Hazanavicius

Thomas Langmann, Emmanuel Montamat
Origin France, Belgium
Running Time 100 minutes
Genre Romance, comedy, drama
Rating PG

Silence is golden!

So what’s all this ‘Oscar buzz’ talk about this film then? Apparently out of nowhere it has become the favourite to win the Academy Award for best picture at this year’s ceremony. Are they having a laugh? First off, it’s a French film made by a director nobody has ever heard of outside his own country. Secondly, it’s in black and white, which apart from Schindler’s List, is generally off-putting to audiences. Lastly, it’s a silent movie! Yes, a silent movie, in this day and age. Yet for all that, critics have been love-bombing it all around the world and it’s been made the bookies’ favourite to sweep the Oscars. Surely this is some sort of achingly pretentious art-house piece that critics will love but audiences will hate?

The film tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who’s a big movie star back in 1920s Hollywood. It opens at the premiere of his latest action-adventure film and afterwards Valentin cheekily milks the applause of the crowd to the exasperation of studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman). Outside the cinema he accidentally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and they are photographed together. Miller is an aspiring actress and the exposure helps her get in the door of Zimmer’s studio. She gets a small part as a dancer on Valentin’s next film and the two are instantly drawn to each other. However Valentin stays faithful to his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) despite their increasingly frosty relationship.

There is a threat to Valentin’s privileged world though and that is the arrival of “talkies”, films in which the actor will have to speak. Immediately threatened by this when warned by Zimmer, Valentin dismisses them as a gimmick. However, despite this, it isn’t long before all the major studios are investing only in talkies. Declaring himself “an artist” Valentin decides to plough all his own money into a self-directed silent movie but the film is a flop. Meanwhile Miller is quickly building up her own movie career and she embraces the talkies and becomes a star. She still cares for Valentin though but can she save Valentin, who seems bent on a path of self-destruction?

In short this is a wonderful film. If you ever wondered how audiences took silent films seriously, then go to this and wonder no more. The first striking thing is the complete and utter silence as the opening credits role, something that’s very rare in cinema these days. Then Ludovic Bource’s score kicks in and we’re transported to the old days. Bource’s score is of course far more important than a modern film in that it’s an active part of telling the story and it carries out its task superbly.

For a French film, Hazanavicius has attracted quite a supporting cast of Hollywood actors. Goodman is perfect as the Hollywood mogul and James Cromwell is typically dignified as Clifton, Valentin’s loyal chauffeur. Malcolm McDowell even has a bizarrely short cameo, despite featuring high in the credits. However it is the performance of the two leads which really make the film.

Dujardin and Bejo are regular collaborators of Hazanavicius on his previous OSS 117 films, a series of comedies which were huge in France, but hardly released outside of there. Bejo is actually his wife, and he’s coaxed two perfect performances from her and the leading man. There’s a moment when Bejo does a little tap-dance, says “the name’s Peppy Miller” and winks at the screen and it’s like falling in love.

Dujardin is all loveable charm and charisma, which makes his descent into despair all the more moving. Of course, in a modern film, their performances would be wildly over the top. But it’s the way they’ve thrown themselves in the oldschool, ‘mugging’ style in such an enthusiastic way that makes their performances so winning. Both of them are tipped for Oscar nominations and they’d be richly deserved. There’s also been a Twitter campaign set up for a best supporting actor nomination for Uggie the dog, and in truth he deserves it for a brilliant performance.

Beautifully shot by Guillaume Schiffman, the film works as both a silent film and as a gentle homage to the golden age of Hollywood. There are a couple of delicious post-modern moments as well but to describe them would only ruin the surprise. It’s also that rarest of films, one that will be adored by critics but could also work as a genuine crowd-pleaser for punters who take a chance on it.

Believe the hype, this is a genuine cinematic treat and one of the most original and enjoyable films in years!

- Jim O’Connor