In these modern times, where the most bankable movies are often long, loud and dumb, it’s easy to forget that, back in its infancy, cinema was a marvel, a new tool in which to make both art and entertainment and deliver things that audiences had never seen before. It was also a time where story was conveyed entirely by visuals (and the odd intertitle), allowing images to paint a thousand words and, for the most part, carry a charm and exuberance inherit with the excitement of this new medium.
It’s refreshing then to see a movie like The Artist as it is a film that not only harkens back to this exuberance but opts to portray it with the film making techniques of the time. Yes, The Artist is in black and white, silent and shot in a 1:33 aspect ratio yet to criticise the film as a gimmick or novelty is unfair. The Artist isn’t striving to be different, it’s striving to homage the roots of the cinematic medium as a whole.
In the late 1920’s, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the silent movie era equivalent of Tom Cruise. After a chance encounter at the premier of his latest movie, he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a plucky starlet whom he gives a supporting role in his latest film. However, with the advent of sound and Miller’s unstoppable rise to fame, Valentin finds his future in the movies in turmoil.
To say The Artist is a simple story would be an understatement, but, like many a great movie, it is told very, very well. It’s a testament to its craft that the finished film has garnered an instant classic status without the aid of dialogue, CGI, or enormous stars (the most recognisable actors are James Cromwell and John Goodman). There is little in the way of subtlety in any of the performances, as was the case during that era, yet this adds to the film’s charm. Happiness is defined by ear-to-ear grins and bellowing laughter (all silent, of course) whilst sadness and dismay are shown with abrupt bursts of anger and streaming tears (again, all silent). For a film without dialogue, these moments are imperative in conveying plot and sentiment yet they deliver more weighty emotion than many a movie released in the last few years. The inclusion of intertitles, of which there are only about twenty, feel as though they’re there out of obligation.
But it’s the film’s charisma that turns it from a good film to a great one. As a loving homage to the heyday of cinema, it aims to enthral the audience with visuals, complete with wipes, irises and fades. There’s no explosions or fighting robots, just a group of terrifically physical actors giving their all and a director who understands the magic of cinema is not with spectacle but with the smaller moments. Watch as Dujardin’s Valentin gets into character by raising an arm, hunching his shoulder and arching an eyebrow. It tells you everything you need to know about the man; charming, professional, and in love with his craft. It makes his eventual decline during the advent of sound feel almost tragic.
The Artist is a cinematic experience of pure perfection. Every now and then a film arrives that makes you fall in love with cinema all over again. This is one of those movies.
Dujardin’s Valentin does have one audible line of dialogue toward the end of the film: ‘with pleasure’. Ironically, despite Berenice Bejo’s Peppy Miller being the biggest ‘talking’ movie star, she has no audible lines at all.