Friday, 3 February 2012

Film Review: The Artist

Director:  Michel Hazanavicius
Rating: PG
Runtime: 100 Minutes

In spite of The Artist’s release as far back as May at the Cannes film festival, the film is only now making its way to many provincial multiplexes around the UK. Without knowing any details of its form, that may seem surprising. From the very first screening audience and critic responses had been uniformly positive, often rapturously so; and, yet, it is only in the last fortnight that it was received uniform nationwide distribution, and only then because it was announced that The Artist had been nominated for an Academy Award.

The reasons for this apparent incongruity are simple, The Artist is displayed in black and white, it was shot in 1.33:1 ratio –in the manner of 1920’s Hollywood- and, most significantly, it is an (ostensibly) silent picture. To suggest such a project represents an anomaly in 2012- when the unholy trinity of Michael Bay, George Lucas and James Cameron are loudly, and carnivorously, rattling the death knell of all 2D cinema- is to stretch the word “understatement” to its cognitive limits.

What then inspired director, Michel Hazanavicius, to return to a cinematic form largely regarded as anachronistic and, moreover, how has it managed to find favour with audiences as well as the more cine-literate film critics? For Hazanavicius- a film-maker who has established himself making French language spy pastiches- it represented an opportunity to pay homage to the much revered “golden era” of silent cinema- immediately prior to era of talkies ushered in by the popularity of The Jazz Singer- and the very best of the subsequent studio Hollywood classics, up until the second world war.

To be able to (largely) employ the strictures of the 1920s in the 21st century, when the study of such cinematic tropes are largely academic rather than practical, and to do so in a way that is profoundly emotionally affecting to a contemporary audience is a gargantuan task. Given this context, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the achievements of Michel Hazanavicius are little short of staggering, as the French film-maker has committed to celluloid a poem to the silent era to melt the hearts of the most battle weary cynical cinema-goers.

Starring the imperious Jean Dujardin, whose masterfully expressive Errol Flynn-like good looks seem as though they may have been waiting a life-time for a silent feature. He plays the overly assured- even arrogant- master of his craft, the renowned silent film actor George Valentin, whose pride withers with his stardom as the new “talkie” pictures become cinema’s new orthodoxy. His decline becomes a symbol and existential lament for his dying medium, and the estranged love he felt for upcoming talkie star, Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo with a breezy, effortless aplomb.

The romance of the lead characters is perfectly illustrative of the power of the silent medium- deliberately and unashamedly melodramatic- adroitly realised by Hazanavicius as though he had been filming in it his entire career. And it must be among the most beautifully realised- and unconsummated- romance in recent cinema history, being so profoundly emotive, in spite of being robbed of the many modern conventions now regarded as sacred.

The leading pair are ably assisted by a stellar supporting cast, including such names as John Goodman and Malcom McDowell; but no one contributes more to the humour and pathos than Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who plays Valentin’s constant companion on and off the screen, and who displays infinitely better timing and range than many star human actors. Each plays their beautifully poised part, as their director becomes increasingly comfortable- and proportionally bold- in his stylings, as The Artist builds to its beautifully conceived, heart-wrenching and exhilarating conclusion.

This film will make stars of its director and leading actors- although, not Uggie, who has subsequently been retired from the screen- though it seems unlikely they will ever again be part of a piece of cinema as exquisitely conceived as The Artist. Whether or not it achieves Oscar success could ultimately prove a side-note; its real achievement maybe that in honouring a form that had long passed into obscurity, it may have ensured an impossibly unlikely renaissance. 

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