I don’t know why people are saying The Artist should win at the Oscars. It’s obvious director Michel Hazanavicius doesn’t know how to make a movie. For a start, he made the film in black and white. Doesn’t he know the world got coloured in during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s? Plus, he’s so incompetent he forgot to record the dialogue, so he just plays some music and occasionally has a caption card come up on screen, as if that’s a sensible way of telling a story.
He doesn’t even manage to make it in the right aspect ratio, as it’s the same width-to-length as old style-TVs. Hell, it’s not even in 3D! Hazanavicius needs to go back to square one, watch some Michael Bay movies and learn how to make real, proper films with explosions and stuff. This is the 21st Century!
However I’m assured that The Artist isn’t the product of an utterly useless filmmaker, but instead harks back to something known as ‘the silent era’, when people moved their mouths but no sound came out. Thankfully this only happened in cinema, as it would have been a bit of a pain in real life. Then things changed in 1927 with the arrival of ‘talkies’, starting with The Jazz Singer, and very soon after silent movies were a thing of the past.
The Artist is a relatively simple story. George Valentin (Jean DuJardin) is a top silent movie star who is convinced that the newfangled idea of ‘talkies’ is just a flash in the pan that he can safely ignore. Even when the studio he works for cancels all silent productions, he decides to drive forward, funding his own non-talking movie, which will bankrupt him if it doesn’t succeed.
George’s fate becomes entwined with that of up and coming starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). They share a few moments together, which leads to a flirtation lasting years. As her star rises with the emergence of sound, his fortunes decline, but his stubborn pride could not only keep them apart, but also destroy him completely.
While The Artist is a wonderful movie for film lovers, it’s tough to tell how the more general film fan will react to it. Many will probably enjoy it, as it’s full of humour, romance and features the world’s most scene-stealing dog, but if it does win the Best Picture Oscar, it’ll be as much because it’s a movie for those whose life is film, as it is because it is indeed one of the best movies of the year.
The story may be fairly simple, but Michel Hazanavicius’ film is a wonderful study in how to visually tell a story. Indeed it will be immensely useful in colleges and universities in years to come as an excellent demonstration of how cinema actually works, without all the modern bells and whistles that tend to disguise and dilute that. Some of the film’s sequences are a joy to behold, with editing, camera position, performance and music coming together to create something that’ll excite film nerds just because of how elegantly it’s done.
George DuJardin is wonderful as the prideful Valentin, oozing charm and spirit. It ensures you’re always on his side, despite the fact the character could easily have come across as a bit of an ass. Berenice Bejo is also excellent as Peppy Miller, working as a great counterpoint to DuJardin. Without dialogue, the actor’s job is undoubtedly a lot tougher. Everything needs to be over-emphasised and created visually, but without looking fake and melodramatic (particularly because, as the film notes, silent cinema has a reputation for actorly gurning). It’s actually quite fascinating to trying and discern how the actors do it in The Artist, and it’s also a good demonstration of how a film performance is as much about editing as acting.
While most of this homage to silent film is great, one thing that rather frustrated me was the use of music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo during one pivotal scene. Hazanavicius has said he used it because it’s a great piece of music. He’s right, as Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo music may be the greatest film score ever written. It’s also very famous and so many viewers may find themselves sucked out of Hazanavicius’ carefully created silent movie world. However while I’ve made a big deal of it – mainly because it sucked me right out of movie for about five minutes – in the grand scheme of things it’s not a giant problem.
My other slight concern is that people will be taking The Artist as an absolute lesson in what happened when Hollywood embraced the talkie in the late 20s, as it’s not that great for that. The film is actually slightly misleading on some aspects of Hollywood history, simplifying things so it works better for the story. Many things it gets right though, such as the stars who simply couldn’t believe that talkies would be anything but a flash in the plan. It’s tough now to imagine why anyone would have thought that, but at the time many did, including Chaplin, who resisted making a talkie for years. I still reckon the best film for giving you an overview of the basics of the coming of talking pictures is, surprisingly enough, Singin’ In The Rain, which does gloss over some things but is actually fairly accurate.
Making an old-style silent movie in the 21st Century could easily have been an interesting filmmaking exercise but have resulted in a rather tedious film. However The Artist has an enormously warm heart, loads of humour and a dog that deserves to have a movie of its own. It’s undoubtedly a movie that will be best appreciated by film obsessives – which should stand it in good stead at the Oscars – but if you’ve enjoyed a Chaplin short or even if you don’t mind the lack of dialogue in Mr. Bean, there’s a lot in The Artist to enjoy.
Overall Verdict: A wonderful look at the elegance and storytelling skill of silent cinema, which will make you laugh and leave you with a warm feeling when you leave the cinema.
NOTE: Just for a bit of poncey edification, I’ve tried to stick to referring to ‘talkies’ here rather than ‘sound’, as sound came to cinema before 1927’s The Jazz Singer, and not just people playing music live in front of the screen. While they’d worked out how add music tracks and sound effects to movies – and many films did have them for cinemas that were equipped to play them – the difficulty was getting people to talk on screen. The technological hurdles that had to be overcome weren’t only about being able to absolutely synchronise speech to the mouth movements on screen, but also about how you recorded dialogue on a set with noisy lights, cameras and ambient noise. Then, of course, cinemas had to be converted to be able to play the dialogue (even cinemas that already had sound systems often weren’t compatible with what was needed for talking picture). While it had been possible since the early 1920s to create short scenes with recorded dialogue, it was only with The Jazz Singer that a feature-film came along that included talking/singing sequences (it wasn’t a talkie all the way through, by the way, just in selected scenes), and which could be shown in enough cinemas to cause a sensation.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac