Could a silent, black-and-white film really become a box-office hit in 2011? At festival after festival around the world, critics have been raving about The Artist (2011), Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to late-1920s Hollywood. Leading man Jean Dujardin has picked up the Best Actor award at Cannes, and thanks in part to Harvey Weinstein’s support, the Oscar speculation has already begun. Surely this is madness, though – even the director himself says, “nobody watches silent movies any more”.
But The Artist is gorgeous enough to make anyone lose their reason: it’s lushly photographed in silvery monochrome, romantic and funny, too. Dujardin’s sparkling performance as silent star George Valentin comes across like a new Douglas Fairbanks – but incredibly, he’s more suave – and when he bumps into Bérénice Bejo’s flirtatious flapper Peppy Miller, the chemistry is irresistible. The Artist tells the story of their troubled love affair, and the way their career paths diverge when the “talkies” arrive. The scene is almost always stolen, however, by Uggy, Valentin’s dog, whose adorable tricks will charm the most silent-sceptical of audiences.
So far, so sugary, but here’s another layer to The Artist. This is a film all about cinema: about the highest achievements, and the follies, of the silent era and all the films that have come since. The silent-film references come thick and fast: from Clara Bow to Erich von Stroheim, from the Fantômas serials to Spione (1928) to The Last Command (1928). There are even a few frames from The Mark of Zorro (1920) in the mix. The talkies get a look-in too, of course. Valentin’s blonde co-star recalls Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain (1952); his scenes with his wife riff on Citizen Kane (1941) and the score borrows liberally from Vertigo (1958). We’re so often watching a film within a film, or spotting a sly cinematic reference, that The Artist is almost a silent movie by stealth. Hazanavicius, like Dujardin, nearly always has one eyebrow raised about his own nostalgic project, sometimes to the detriment of the film. There’s a dramatic moment towards the end of The Artist that is almost entirely ruined by an intertitle gag, for example. It gets a laugh, but it’s a cheap one.
These knowing moments are dangerous, because they threaten to break The Artist‘s enchanting spell and pull the audience out of what is for the most part a dreamily seductive experience. At its best, The Artist is a triumphantly modern silent film, which shows the influence of Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Frank Borzage but never looks like a relic. I loved the early sequences when Valentin and Miller first fall for each other: their backstage tapdance, and their repeated takes of the same scene (from cool, to sexy, to loving and finally collapsing into giggles) are pure silent cinema magic. When Miller is alone in Valentin’s dressing room, she snuggles up to his suit jacket, slips one arm into the sleeve and begins to canoodle with herself. It’s a wonderful piece of visual film-making, and says far more, with more charm, than dialogue ever could. Silent cinema fans will recognise the move from a scene in Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), when Janet Gaynor shrugs her lover’s jacket on to her shoulders and wraps the sleeves around her. It has to be said, though, that The Artist‘s version is a lot sexier – it’s not 1927 any more.
The Artist isn’t always so cuddly. The lively, if anachronistic, score is not quite continuous; it’s brave enough to drop away for a moment’s pause, leaving the cinema in dead, unaccustomed, silence. That’s a bold move, and a self-conscious one, too. And as Valentin’s confidence takes a knock, expressionist shadows, spinning headlines, trick photography and one audacious nightmare sequence are all piled on to make us feel his pain. Sadly, it’s here that the film veers between homage and pastiche, and suffers just a little in the process. Does Hazanavicius want us to love silent cinema, or to laugh at it? Ultimately, The Artist doesn’t want to answer that question, it just wants to entertain, which it does, brilliantly.
I entered the cinema worrying about whether this film will be able to charm mass audiences or just film buffs and furrowing my brow over whether its potential success could spearhead a silent film revival. As the credits rolled I really didn’t care any more. The Artist is a joy and it doesn’t deserve to be weighed down with such responsibilities. If you’re watching it at the London Film Festival this week, you’re in for a treat.
For the rest of us, Launchingfilms.com currently lists the UK release date as 30 December 2011.