Who would have thought a film that is silent, monochrome and not widescreen would be a public favourite, as well as a darling for the critics and frontrunner for a batch of Oscars? But regardless, is a revisionist post-modern nostalgia piece going to actually be a decent film, or just a dull art-house bore?
Set in in 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a successful film star of the silent era within his element. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is a young up-and-coming actress looking for her big break. Opposite ends of the spectrum, they meet almost by accident when she desperately tries to get his autograph but ends up with a much publicised kiss instead. After a bit of trouble from the wife, the kiss is forgotten. However, in this era of progress their lives intersect between moments of unexpressed attraction, only to be disrupted as Valentin’s world is about to be shattered. Interrupted by the advent of ‘talkies’, movies with sound, they find their career trajectories turn upside down: Miller goes from rags to riches, while Valentin walks out stage left into obscurity, as his pride stops him from allowing this ‘sound’ to destroy his art.
If that sounds depressing, do not be fooled. This film is an absolute delight to see — funny and touching throughout, never overstepping its mark to try and tell a lazy joke. It uses the silent style with aplomb; as much as it is a hindrance it makes sure everything else is working harder. The visual styles reference the likes of Citizen Kane to Metropolis, and then straight back to 1930s musicals. The film is as much a spectacle as a melodrama, a romance and a comedy — all that you could want in a film with a joy in spirit and its heart in the right place. It is the silent film with a modern sensibility.
The lead performances are by far some of the best of the year, as the lead couple have infectious charm and palpable chemistry just oozes out of the screen, leaving you with a smile on your face. Dujardin looks like a film star, with a winning smile but a dimension that could have been lost with a lesser actor; while Bejo is just stunning as Peppy, as she can change our emotions with just a look. Lest we forget, John Goodman and James Cromwell add their own talents as grumpy studio head Zimmer and overly loyal valet Clifton, respectively. However, who steals the show isn’t actually human, but the most revelatory role of the whole film was saved for Uggie, a vibrant Jack Russell terrier who plays Valentin’s ever faithful dog Jack, who steals the show at every turn.
It must be said, the film’s plot is unoriginal as it is Singin’ in the Rain meets A Star Is Born, but who really cares? The film might not be the most complex thing in the world, but it is charming, inventive, has great acting, a cute dog, and makes for a film that you’ll regret missing at the cinema.
The Artist (2011), directed by Michael Hazanavicius, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment Film Distributors, certificate PG.