Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Film Review | The Artist (2011)

It's always nice, after the awards season is over, to seek out the winners and the runners up I haven't yet seen. Sometimes it's clear to see why a film was successful, at others it's hard to see why they were even nominated. When a film wins as big as The Artist did this year, it's pretty much a must-see in order to make up my own mind. With such a hefty haul of golden statuettes in tow, The Artist was always going to need to be something pretty special to feel like its array of plaudits are deserved. And it's with a huge amount of pleasure that I can confirm that they most certainly are.

Set in the late twenties and early thirties, The Artist follows the life of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the silent era. When the transition from silent films to talkies begins, Valentin's career takes a serious hit; at the same time, the star of actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whom Valentin helped to get started in showbusiness, begins to rise.

The reasons behind The Artist's comprehensive success are several, but not complicated. Often described as a silent film, technically this isn't true - it's an "almost silent film". However, director Michel Hazanavicius shows incredible control and artistry in using pretty much all the hallmarks of silent film-making to wonderful effect. So we have intertitles to relate what characters are saying, which feel entirely natural and never off-putting, as well as antiquated edits and camera effects. It all works masterfully and brilliantly.

The musical soundtrack that accompanies the vast majority of the film is a charming homage to film scores of yesteryear, whilst at the same time feeling fresh and never stuffy. Hazanavicius occasionally chooses to place breaks of a few seconds between musical numbers - just as an orchestra finishing one piece and beginning the next - which not only heightens the authenticity of his film, but also reminds the viewer of the power of the visual element they are continuously beholding.

But that's not the half of it. Like I said, The Artist isn't, in the true sense of the term, a silent film. Hazanavicius does on more than one occasion choose to include diegetic sound, at least once without any warning. In doing this, the director injects an energy and power into the most ordinary of sounds to create some of the most brilliantly effective and original scenes I can remember seeing in a film for quite some time. Hazanavicius takes what most filmmakers take for granted and turns them into the tools of a master virtuoso.

The Artist features the reliable talents of long-serving Hollywood supporting men John Goodman and James Cromwell, who only go to prove even further through the silent medium how genuinely and thoroughly talented they are as actors. But nothing can be taken away from the leading duo of Dujardin and Bejo. The latter infuses Peppy Miller with an innocence and spark that makes her character a joy to behold; we wholeheartedly believe she is a hopeful young girl with big dreams at the start, just as much as we believe she can become a successful Hollywood star when talking pictures take over from silent films.

But if The Artist is defined by one performance it will always be that of Dujardin. He inhabits the role of Valentin, creating an incredibly human character of pride and delusion, but also heart and a natural desire to entertain. Dujardin's performance is mesmerising and flawless, and one that is sure to go down as one of cinema's best ever. The chemistry between Bejo and him is tangible and enchanting. It also helps that both actor and actress have just the right aesthetic to feel like genuine stars of the time. Finally, I can't speak of performances without mentioning one of the most delightful human-canine pairings I can remember in any film, that of Dujardin and Uggie the Jack Russell, an endlessly talented and genuinely charming man's best friend.

The Artist's story of rags to riches and vice versa is certainly not a new one. But the way in which Hazanavicius tells it with such humanity and gusto means that each scene is utterly compelling. Forget any rom-com or family favourite you've seen - The Artist is a strong candidate for the ultimate feel-good film. Hazanavicius deals with some serious, even dark, aspects of the human condition, certainly; but by the time the final credits roll you will be left intoxicated with the warming glow of a truly enchanting piece of cinema that will stay with you, bringing a smile to your face every time you think of it.


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