Friday, 27 January 2012

The Artist

Academy Award Nominations: 10
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius)
  • Best Actor (Jean Dujardin)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Berenice Bejo)
  • Best Original Screenplay (Michel Hazanavicius)
  • Best Art Direction (Production Design: Laurence Bennett, Set Decoration: Robert Gould)
  • Best Cinematography (Guillaume Schiffman)
  • Best Original Score (Ludovic Bource)
  • Best Costume Design (Mark Bridges)
  • Best Film Editing (Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius)

Business is booming in Hollywood in the 1920’s. People are flocking to the cinemas to see the silent pictures, and the man at the forefront of all this is George Valentin, Kinograph Studio’s major star and leading man. But, there’s change coming, as the advent of sound is coming sooner rather than later, and George can’t seem to abide by these major developments. On top of that, his star is beginning to fade in favour of a female star he helped to make famous; a woman by the name of Peppy Miller, who’s fast becoming the face of the ‘talkies’...

The Artist is unique amongst this year’s best picture nominees. Hell, it’s unique amongst all films this year, this decade, this millennium. In case you didn’t already know, The Artist is a black and white silent film, a replica of (or rather an ode to) the black and white silent films of the 1920’s the plot revolves around. I would say it’s refreshing to see something so different, but this was the standard 90 years ago, so technically it’s not new, it’s actually tremendously old school. The problem is black and white silent films were destroyed by the advent of colour and sound. Surely, then, a film like The Artist can only act as an homage to the era, rather than use its tropes and themes to create a 21st century film that can attract and entertain a wide audience. This assumption would be dead wrong. The Artist is an absolute treat.

The Artist is not going to be a film for everyone, obviously. Recent reports of cinema goers in Liverpool demanding refunds because they didn’t realise the film was silent and in black and white exemplify this. However, if people were willing to give this a go, people would see that this isn’t just one of those films exclusively for critics and film buffs. The Artist is compelling viewing throughout its short 90 minute runtime, something that most films with dialogue and action sequences nowadays fail to achieve. It’s romantic and funny and dramatic and tragic and celebratory, all rolled into one. The man behind this? Michel Hazanavicius: Writer, director and editor. Clearly, he knew what he’d have to do to advance the plot without the use of dialogue, and does so brilliantly with sparingly-used intertitles and fast paced editing using 1920’s techniques such as wipes and fades. However, Hazanavicius is not alone in his endeavours.

The acting is one of the key elements here, as more has to be said through expression and attitude, which leaves a lot resting on leading stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. They carry it superbly well though, managing to create associable characters through nothing more than over-exaggerated facial expressions and actions. Dujardin in particular is fantastic, because he seems to not just play the part of George Valentin, rather he becomes the role. I realise this is a terrible acting cliché, but I’ve honestly never seen a truer example of it. Dujardin lives out Valentin’s downfall on screen and does so in a heartbreaking way. Considering the man is an alcoholic failure, the attachment and sympathy you hold for him is entirely down to Dujardin’s performance. Bejo also deserves credit as her performance as the rising starlet makes her the antithesis of Valentin, and yet her performance makes her and Dujardin a brilliant pairing. The expressiveness in her face and her actions, no matter how slight they are, portrays her emotions on screen without the need for dialogue and accentuate her character. Even the dog, Uggie, is great in this! He acts as well as the human actors and, due to the lack of sound, becomes an equal performer, adding comedy elements and creating tension and drama. For a dog, that is incredibly impressive. There is also a great supporting cast here, including John Goodman perfectly playing a fat cat, cigar chomping studio head. It’s good to see a film where there are many recognisable faces, but the most recognisable name is Goodman, and the lead actors are total unknowns before now. There is, however, a key character in the film that is more important than any other: The soundtrack.

I call the soundtrack a character, because Hazanavicius makes the soundtrack become integral to the film’s plot and pacing, not only with his use of music (which is pretty spot-on throughout), but through his clever use of sound effects in certain scenes to add emphasis or create tension. The score is perfect throughout, a mix of period and contemporary compositions played with an orchestra in the style befitting the film’s medium. He doesn’t use sound much, but when he does, it’s great. Moments when the music stops, and the emphasis is placed squarely on the action on screen become tense, and when you add sound effects, breaking the silence, it’s a mix of delight and bewilderment how something so simple can have such an effect both on the characters on screen and to the viewing audience.

Overall, The Artist is undeniably fantastic, one of those films I can’t wait to watch again even though I’ve literally just seen it. If people are willing to give it a go, they’ll find it has something for everyone, as appealing to a teenage market as it will be to an elderly market. The performances are first class, as well they should be, or else it would fall on its own sword. The use of music and sound are measured and pretty much spot-on, and the visual style and editing are a fitting tribute to the silent pictures of the era it attempts to replicate. Michel Hazanavicius has great reason to be proud of this film, and The Artist is most certainly worthy of all the plaudits it’s currently receiving. The Artist hasn’t left me speechless, but my god it’s breathtaking.

Rating: *****

The Artist was released on 30th December 2011 and is still currently in cinemas.