2011, Berenice Bejo, Billy Wilder, Cannes film Festival, Charlie Chaplin, french, Guy Maddin, Harold Lloyd, illusion, James Cromwell, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Louise Brooks, mash-up, melodrama, Michel Haznavicius, Modern Times, nostalgia, silent film, Singing in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, surrealism, The Artist, Uggie the Dog
Written and Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Uggie the dog,
The transition in Hollywood from the silent era to the talkie was, for many major stars, cruel. Many stars, such as comedy genius Harold Lloyd, were unable to make the trasition and their careers fell apart. This happened for a number of reasons; for some, like Lloyd, their talent didn’t benefit from the addition of sound, while for others they either had unflattering voices or they had heavy foreign accents that weren’t embraced by American audiences. In a lot of cases it meant that stars at the top of their game had their careers cut short by the abrupt change, while others struggled on only to find that with the advent of soud there was a demand for fresh blood regardless of talent. Many silent film stars, such as the great Louise Brooks, have claimed that a lot of studio executives used the transition into sound films as an excuse to trim the fat and many actors were offered bad deals in an effort to force them to quit or “retire.” Such is the case for George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the charming and enormously famous silent film star who refuses to make sound films but whose studio refuses to make any more silent films in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.
It’s not as though this story hasn’t been told before; classics such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Singing In the Rain (1952) told the story of characters whose careers were ruined by the talkie. Charlie Chaplin’s first sound film, the astounding Modern Times (1934), used sound for atmosphere and music but barely at all for dialogue and was concerned with rapid and all-consuming growth of un-wanted change and technology. It may not be groundbreaking but The Artist is certainly fresh and its a really great time. As George, Dujardin couldn’t be better; his ridiculously charming smile and classic good looks make him look entirely authentic, and his mannerisms and movements are perfect. George is proud and self-obsessed, but he seems to be genuinely in love with acting, and takes great pride in the corny schlock in which he stars. Dujardin gives a great and well-studied performance, clearly taking great pains to achieve the grant and exaggerated acting style of silent film stars. While Dujardin looks the part, his costar Berenice Bejo disappointingly does not. As the up-and-coming Hollywood darling Peppy Miller, Bejo is alright but she has the physique of a 21st Century Vogue model, not that of the Golden Age starlet she’s playing and it really spoils the illusion. In terms of performance, Bejo is not as studied and reserved as Dujardin, and with her open-mouthed grin and enormous gestures she plays Peppy like an exagerated Clara Bow (which is saying something).
Hazanavicius isn’t the first to replicate the aesthetic of the silent film, nor is he the best. That honour belongs to Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin who replicates very early silent films with the mad obsession of someone who is attempting to access something beyond a mere aesthetic. Where Maddin uses cameras and equipment built and used in the early 20th Century, Hazanavicius shot his film didigtally and drained the colour and added effects in post. I was disappointed to learn this at first but the fact is his efforts were successful and the results are undeniable. However he chose do do it, Hazanavicius has crafted a film that feels genuine and one that is a real joy to watch. The plot is compelling and a few grand setpieces are a blast. Dance sequences don’t bloat the film but they’re present and when they happen they’re just so great. A handful of sequences in which Hazanavicius uses sound are not overwrought or obvious, and by reserving them and keeping them short Hazanavicius achieves something particularly striking. The Artist, filled with snippets of score, camera movements, compositions and gags from great Hollywood classics, is like a game of silent film I Spy. Silent-era cinema may not be engrained in Hazanavicius as fundamentally as it is in Maddin, but it certainly has had a legitimate influence on his sensibilities.
The Artist is clever and really well made. It’s not the gratuitous nostalgia piece I was worried it would but rather it is a properly engaging and relevant film. Perhaps it is not entirely unintentional that Hazanavicius is using digital means to construct a nostalgic piece about a great shift in cinema. Perhaps he is speaking to the great changes that are happening and have been happening in cinema over the last decade. Perhaps he is speaking to the strange and accelerated sense of cultural nostalgia that is going on. Perhaps he is looking at the weird habit we are developing in the 21th Century of reaching into the past to create the present, especially in terms of pop culture. Or perhaps he’s just feeding that habit. Or perhaps not. The bits with the dog doing tricks are fun.