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The Artist

Reviewed by Paul Cuff.

Director Michel Hazanavicius
Length 100 mins
Certificate PG / PG-13
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Trailer.

I feel I should begin by saying that I am a passionate devotee of silent films. I don’t know whether this gives me an advantage or a disadvantage in reviewing The Artist (2011), a new “silent” film made by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius.

The plot is set between 1927 and 1933. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a hugely popular actor, starring in none-too-serious romantic adventure films. His charmingly vain persona masks a loveless marriage - he prefers to spend time with his dog (Uggie) than his wife (Penelope Ann Miller). One day, unknown actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) quite literally falls into his arms outside a screening and, after she joins the cast of his next film as an extra, the two fall for each other. Simultaneous to this emotional shock is the threat posed by the arrival of sound cinema. Valentin rejects the new medium and funds his own silent film. The blow to his pride from its commercial failure is compounded by the financial catastrophe of the Stock Market Crash. The film plays out Valentin's and Peppy's parallel lives with a delicate blend of comedy and tragedy. (And more than one “bit with a dog”.)

Let me start by being contentious: The Artist is not a silent film. It contains two sequences with recorded diegetic sound. This may seem like a small point, but it’s part of a wider issue the film has with its medium that cooled my reaction. Most cinematic references in The Artist are to sound films. There are visual and thematic nods to (among others) A Star is Born (1937 and 1954), Citizen Kane (1941), and Singin' in the Rain (1952), whilst the soundtrack features vocal recordings from the late 1930s and quotes (I cannot think quite why) from Herrmann’s score for Vertigo (1958). Hazanavicius’ film is mostly set in the sound era and we only get the tiniest fragments of silent films shown within the film we are watching. The Artist allies itself with Valentin by remaining predominantly silent in the face of sound, but rather than stand as an outpost of a uniquely different art form, it keeps the silent era at an ironic distance. There is little attempt to use the complex visual language of the 1920s - in fact, Hazanavicius seems most inventive in the film’s two sound sequences.

But let me put this in context. The Artist is a more coherent film than Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), whose overt references to silent film struck me as clumsily gratuitous. Hugo includes beautiful clips from original films of the 1920s, but this homage tends to highlight a serious contrast in quality. A few frames of Conrad Veidt’s eyelids struggling to lift in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) were more powerful than anything in the surrounding two-hours of material from Scorsese. Yet, unlike Hugo, which gives you some evidence of what silent films might be like to watch, The Artist doesn’t provide a detailed recreation of silent cinema, even in the films-within-the-film. What it does offer is a gentle blend of comedy and romance, crisp black-and-white photography, and charming performances by a cast that clearly enjoyed the opportunity the film provided.

A great silent film is an immersive experience, allowing a spectator’s involvement with the world on screen unbroken by the limitations of recorded sound or realism. I was disappointed, therefore, not to be wholeheartedly drawn into The Artist. It felt faintly superficial - more charm than real emotion, more lightness of touch than penetrating wit. Perhaps this is a problem others won’t have, and my own high expectations were misplaced. I had imagined a wholeheartedly silent film. But you shouldn’t go to see The Artist because (or in spite of the fact that) it’s a 'silent film' - you should see it because it’s a good film.

This review was published on January 31, 2012.

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