Cannes (Official Selection) – The historical switch from silent to sound cinema has already sired one legendary screen chronicle, in the shape of Singin' in the Rain. Does The Artist deserve to be mentioned in such exalted company? Paul Martin investigates.
With his brace of OSS 117 movies, a pair of super-spy super-spoofs, French director Michel Hazanavicius demonstrated that he could not only lampoon genre conventions with Tellian accuracy and crowd-pleasing humour, but that he also possessed an aptitude for fashioning sterling recreations of cinema gone-by. And yet, after viewing The Artist, his debut English-language offering (well, sort of – more on this momentarily), the aesthetic accomplishments of those two earlier retro-cool espionage excursions begin to pale in comparison, so joyously note-perfect is the evocation of the early days of Golden Era Hollywood in Hazanavicius's latest.
Seriously, so spot-on are the copious homages, the myriad nods and winks, which are locked within the mise en scène that cineastes will be left drooling in ecstasy at the wonders unfolding before them. This stellar production value is grounded by a genuine emotional tug too though, making for a movie that offers tremendous pleasure even for those viewers who don't know their De Sica from their de Souza, their Bergman from their Boll, their Hitchcock from their Harlin.
Said emotional tug comes via the two central characters in The Artist, with both roles being played by performers who previously worked with Hazanavicius in his OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. The man who took the eponymous lead in that film, Jean Dujardin, is called upon to essay a figure who seems initially similar – his matinee idol George Valentin being another slick-haired, slightly bumbling charmer who harbours as great a surplus of ego as Gordon Ramsay.
We are introduced to George just as his star appears to be in an irreversible ascendency, with his new movie (in which he, with his top hat and domino mask, seems to be playing what looks not unlike the heroic doppelganger of that legendary silent screen vagabond, Fantômas) debuting to a packed house in the Hollywood of 1927. Following a rapturous reception for the film, Valentin then further tickles the appreciative crowd (and infuriates his co-star, Constance, played by Missi Pyle), by clowning about on-stage, aided and abetted in this groan-worthy chicanery by an ever-present canine sidekick (Uggy the dog, delivering the first of many shamelessly scene-stealing moments).
At the other end of the Hollywood ladder to George is a young dancer named Peppy Miller (Dujardin's Nest of Spies love interest, Bérénice Bejo, who like he, repays the loyalty of their director with an entirely charming performance). Although their paths briefly cross outside the cinema following the premiere, for now Peppy can only dream of being where George is. Having said that, his position isn't as great as it appears from the outside, as he endures an unhappy home-life with Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), his sour-faced spouse who seems to spend most of her time defacing publicity pictures of her husband.
As we know, thanks to the lofty perspective provided by historical hindsight, a seismic change struck Hollywood in 1927, and it duly strikes in The Artist, as Al Zimmer (John Goodman), the head of Kinograph Studios where George is under contract, one day introduces his fatefully dismissive top star to the concept of sound cinema. It is this industry-revolutionising development that triggers the reversal of fortune which drives Hazanavicius's story, with George soon finding himself careering towards the gutter, while Peppy soars towards the celebrity stratum with equivalent velocity.
Some important things to understand about The Artist: the entire movie is in black-and-white. The entire movie is silent. Yes, silent. While the sparingly-deployed intertitles are in English, dialogue is conspicuous by its absence (the music is wonderful, mind). Hazanavicius has not only recreated the era of pre-sound cinema within his story of his film, he has also done so in its form, even down to the use of an authentic, square-ish 1.33 aspect ratio. It is, at the most cursory glance, maybe an unusual approach (although certainly not unique, as the relatively recent Esteban Sapir picture, La Antena, did something similar, albeit in more esoterically-stylised manner), but it is one which proves inspired.
Everything is in its right place, every last little neat touch tells of a care and attention to detail that could restore even a cynical old hack's faith in the modern cinema. The plot progression might be predictable, but the journey is a freewheeling delight.
There are literally dozens of terrific moments. Like the witty use of a simple sound effect in a dream sequence, when George puts a glass down on his dresser just after he has pooh-poohed the notion of sound cinema, this aural nightmare building and building until he sees a feather float to the ground and emit a landing boom as loud as the almighty himself dropping his bowels after a night on the ale. Or when news of the Wall Street Crash breaks and George remarks he is financially sunk, unless Tears of Love, his self-financed silent ego-trip, is a hit, only for the faint smile of his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) to tell us that even the old geezer's tireless loyalty cannot blinker him to the sheer improbability of that scenario.
Or when George and Peppy flirt by having a (tap)dance-off either side of a partially-raised backdrop that prevents each from identifying the other. Or when Peppy steals into George's dressing room and enacts a romantic fantasy with just her arm and his jacket. Or when... well, there are simply too many to list. And you will enjoy them infinitely more by discovering them yourself when (not if) you go to see this gem of a movie.
Rating on a scale of 5 artistic triumphs: 5
Release date: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay by: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running Time: 100 minutes