d. Michel Hazanavicius / 2011 / France / 100 mins
Those of you who’ve been reading these reviews may remember one I wrote, in which I lamented the lack of interest in contemporary silent film. Little did I know that in the next few months a film with such aspirations would become the most celebrated of the year, and quite possibly, the most critically praised French film of all time.
If this year is anything to go on (which has seen awards heaped upon both Hugo and The Artist), it seems there’s nothing that audiences, film-makers and critics admire more than a film that celebrates the wonders of its own history. But is this vogue for self referential cinema a regurgitation in style, or the creation of something new?
First off, The Artist is not a silent film, nor is it an attempt to replicate the films of this age. Despite being black and white and displayed in 1.33:1, the occasional use of diegetic sound roots it in the contemporary and the plot’s focus on the passing of a bygone era makes sure that this is a romantic memorial and not the resurrection of an art form.
Rather than reiteration and stagnation, this ethic of progression is carried into the narrative of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a character modelled in no small part after Douglas Fairbanks. But although Valentin owes his creation to others such as Gene Kelly and Rudolph Valentino, it is Dujardin who makes him his own. Completely deserved of his academy award for best actor, Dujardin reminds us of the unique way that silent performances can entrance us, and puts accusations of “mugging” to shame with a display of both charm and intelligence. He’s supported admirably by Berenice Bejo as the eternally effervescent Peppy Miller, an up and coming actress who comes to represent not only Valentin’s demise but also his possible salvation. The ever engaging James Cromwell and John Goodman flesh out the cast as chauffeur and studio-exec, both managing to steal more than a few scenes between them. But without a doubt, the real crowd pleaser is Uggie (and two others) as Jack, Valentin’s canine friend, proof that a cute dog doing tricks is still a sure-fire way to get an audience on your side.
Michel Hazanavicius draws on vintage edits such as fades and wipes, and employs the classic techniques of Murnau, Ford and Lang to create an aesthetic that flaunts cinema’s heritage, yet manages to feel completely fresh. A huge amount of attention has been paid to the sets and location shooting, ranging from obscure homages only the boffins and buffs will appreciate (Peppy’s house was once home to Mary Pickford) to gorgeous interiors, a personal favourite being a stairwell that sees Valentin and Peppy converse as extras move to and fro.
Whilst the film acts first and foremost as a love letter to cinema’s past glories, it also manages to tell a unique and deeply psychological narrative about a confrontation with the ego that on occasion, makes use of that quintessential French theme, the avant garde. These moments are capable of intertwining into images that not only prove memorable, but are and will continue to be remembered as being emblematic of our relationship with film. The scenes where Valentin inspects himself on screen and the resulting nitrate fire resonates through not only his character, but the medium that has created him.
Yet, I am not without my reservations. Could the film be too perfect, too well rounded? What Hazanavicius has achieved is an underlining of a medium, a film that is not a silent film in itself, but uses the same tropes to insist upon its relevance, its importance, yet still in its conclusion, accepts its demise. The Artist proves that silent film is an art form that is still capable of revision and appropriation, intelligent expansion rather than sheer reiteration; but by associating it with a previous (now deceased) era and a narrative that sees a man acknowledge the futility of preservation, the film relegates an important mode of film-making to obsolesensce. I can’t help wishing that it were a silent film almost by incident, encouraging its continued use, rather than consigning it to a bygone age.