The Artist (2011)

French director Michael Hazanavicius’s film is nothing if not a hard sell. Black and white, with almost no dialogue or diegetic sound, it certainly ran the risk of being relegated to the domain of cinematic curios. However, rather against the odds, it has managed to win over audiences, and became the darling of this year’s Cannes festival.

The film sees silent star George Valentin, played by French comic actor Jean Dujardin, face the advent of the “talkie” motion picture, represented by the rise to fame of a young actress, Peppy Miller, whose career and subsequent stardom she owes to him. Valentin is a jolly silent star with a dog, while Peppy is a fabulous flapper with pizzazz – in the harsh days of the Hollywood studio system, one star must fall for another to rise.

Hazanavicius had already shown himself to be a master at capturing cinematic zeitgeists – his two OSS 117 films, both starring Dujardin as the titular secret agent, were pitch perfect recreations of the tone and look of 1960s Bond-ian globetrotting spy films. This film succeeds admirably in being both a commentary on and evocation of silent cinema. In his use of shadows and reflection as storytelling devices, Hazanavicius betrays his deep love and understanding of early cinema. The best thing that comes of these scenes is a glorious realisation that, despite being one of the oldest of cinematic hats, expressionism still works.

Few actors would be able, in my humble opinion, to handle the lead role as well as Dujardin, who manages to embody perfectly the spirit of silent movie actors while at the same time never failing to highlight the humanity of his character. His co-star is the ravishing Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s wife and Dujardin’s OSS 117 co-star, who fits the role of Golden Age goodtime gal equally perfectly. Together they provide a delightfully vibrant pairing.

As one would expect, coming from the man behind both the OSS 117 films and the hilarious cult French TV movie La Classe Americaine, this is a funny film. However, Hazanavicius does not shy away from darkness when necessary, and some moments lead you to think that he might be pushing the film towards the benchmark of postmodern critique of silent cinema, Sunset Boulevard (indeed, some lines seem to pay deliberate homage). There is also a startlingly creepy moment where things suddenly start making noise, while George remains mute. Hazanavicius milks this potent, nightmarish concept for all it’s worth, cutting right to the heart of the matter.

I haven’t even got on to the dog! Well deserved winner of the Palm Dog at Cannes, he is an adorable little creature, and his interaction with Dujardin is a pleasure to watch. Some people might balk at his “Lassie” moment, but given the pitch of the film in general I found it completely forgivable.

There might be people watching The Artist who (for shame!) have never before seen a silent film. It serves as a very stylish introduction, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more directors in the near future decide to do away with words and experiment with a purer visual style. It has its rough points, particularly in the early stages of the film before the tone has fully coalesced and the hi-jinks teeter on the edge of grating, but for the most part this is a well-measured and loving ode to silent cinema.

Who needs words? With its high calibre acting and direction, a neat storyline, and some gorgeous cinematography perfectly evoking the time when talking cinema was born, The Artist makes a noise all its own.