The recent darling of cinemagoers of all types has been this multiple Oscar-nominated black and white silent film from Michel Hazanavicius, one I’d been meaning to take in for some time and finally got round to recently. And I’m very glad I did because it’s the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Okay, I’ll come clean it’s technically a 2011 film because it went on general release on the 30th of December but it’s too late to include The Artist in my Top Ten Films of 2011 which it most definitely would have been good enough for so I’ll hold it over until next year. I can tell you now it will have to be one hell of a year for The Artist to be left off that list.
The Artist is a very self-aware film since its subject matter is precisely what it is. Jean Dujardin plays the charismatic and arrogant George Valentin a silent film god of the 1920s who plays to crowds, infuriates his co-stars and acts alongside his loyal Jack Russell (Uggie) in all his films. With the world at his feet he gives young hopeful Peppy Miller (a seriously appealing Bérénice Bejo) a leg up into the industry and sneers at his director’s (John Goodman) new interest in talkies. Betting against the fresh craze George’s career takes a nosedive to coincide with the stock market crash while Peppy’s popularity soars.
Part of the reason why the film is such a delight is in its beautifully judged tone which ranges from whimsical and light to downright Capra-esque sad as scenes demand. So much of this is achieved by the musical accompaniment which is present pretty much throughout and perfectly guides your emotions to compliment the masterful acting. Jean Dujardin has definitely earned his Oscar nomination by striking the right balance between charming and smug to create a deeply flawed character that is still very easy to sympathise with while Bejo is a delightful screen presence, lighting up every one of her scenes. Together they are the epitome of what made the silent era so popular, easy, charismatic and light. The supporting cast are all on fine form, particularly Goodman who seems to be having a lot of fun as the long-suffering director and Uggie is an immediate hit as the faithful pooch with a bright career ahead of him (Nintendo has already signed him up as their official spokesdog).
If you’re at all concerned that the lack of sound (other than that wonderful score) might inhibit your enjoyment of The Artist I can confidently reassure you. I’d never previously seen a single silent film in my life and had no difficulty whatsoever in enjoying the unique pleasures the classic medium has to offer. The use of title cards is actually quite sparing, reserved for moments in the script in which facial expressions and body language aren’t quite enough to tell the story. In one case in particular they’re put to extremely effective use as a clever piece of misdirection. There’s also a brilliant dream sequence to look out for that plays a beautifully-judged trick in a pretty direct reference to the quirks of the silent genre.
The only possible downfall with going to see The Artist in the cinema is not a fault of the film as such. Since this is a silent film any noise in the theatre will be that bit more audible. I was lucky enough to have seen it as part of an impeccably well-behaved audience with only the odd cough puncturing the silence in the auditorium but my buddy Ryan’s viewing of the film was slightly spoiled by a pair of old ladies who evidently hadn’t grasped cinema etiquette and talked throughout. It’s a shame that this can sometimes be the case because the film deserves the full attention of audiences for being just the most breezy, well-judged and heart-warming backwards glance at the history of film. It’s a triumph and gets my highest recommendation.
Short on spoken dialogue but long on uplifting entertainment, The Artist is an instant classic sure to inspire countless inferior copycats, a great homage to the early days of the medium and downright brilliant film in its own right.