Happy New Year – time to ring out the old and ring in something so old that it’s brand new.
The Artist is a black-and-white silent film that’s part comedy, part melodrama, part musical – and entirely French. In this homage to Hollywood at the twilight of the silent era, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has created a fabulously enjoyable entertainment that restores faith in cinema’s continuing ability to find new surges of energy – even if that does mean going back in time.
The film begins in 1927, when George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film idol at the height of his fame, brashly grinning his way through daredevil adventures in top hat, tails and mask – half Douglas Fairbanks, half Mandrake the Magician. But George’s career stalls when sound comes to Hollywood and old faces are displaced by the new – like ingénue actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Peppy gets her break through a chance encounter with George, then finds herself the toast of the talkies just as he is becoming Hollywood’s forgotten man. We can only perch on the edge of our seats (and believe me, we do) and wonder whether George will be saved by the love of a good woman – or indeed, by the dedication of his intrepid hound, a scene-stealing Jack Russell named Uggie.
The film is crammed with evident echoes of films such as A Star is Born and Sunset Boulevard, along with stylistic and narrative nods to period masters such as King Vidor and Frank Borzage. But the question of originality should be treated with caution, because The Artist is so inventive and intelligent a pastiche. Hazanavicius has so thoroughly mastered the language of silents that he’s learned to think like a 1920s director – with the benefit of some 90 years' hindsight, but without the get-out of distancing irony. The Artist takes the past seriously – celebrates it, jokes with it, but always honours it.
This meticulously artificed creation feels note-perfect, in a way that's alive rather than scholarly. Dujardin and Béjo offer heightened versions of bygone acting styles, yet they're never spoofing. Béjo plays Peppy, a-bubble with pearly-teethed optimism, as a catalogue of the winks, smiles and hair-tosses of period actresses: young Joan Crawford infused with the dizzy coquetry of screen soubrettes like Ruby Keeler.
Meanwhile, her co-star turns in a subtle and moving essay on screen acting, on the art of projecting a public persona. Jean Dujardin is naturally blessed with a 1920s physiognomy, a sleek head that belongs on a Moss Bros dummy: as George flashes his triumphant grin, you wonder what, if anything, can possibly lie behind such a face. But as Dujardin paints George's decline, we discover the yearning and the dignified despair behind the narcissism.
The film's perfectionism is visible in its every facet: the design, the wardrobe, the Los Angeles locations. Guillaume Schiffman shoots it in the hazy, finely shaded grey of the truly silver screen, often luxuriously wreathed in cigarette smoke, and Ludovic Bource contributes a superb, multi-stranded score that, by necessity, works overtime. The casting too is perfectly period-specific: from the bit parts (a jug-eared showbiz reporter, a fussing nurse) to bigger roles such as Penelope Ann Miller as George's contemptuous wife, Doris, and John Goodman's tough but big-hearted producer.
Teeming with subtext, The Artist could be read as a timely commentary on fame, fanhood, overnight success and failure, not to mention hard-times economics. But the fundamental subject is film, and the way it signifies. This is not just a silent movie, but a self-reflexive comedy about silence: the advent of the talkies is signalled by a brilliant fugue of nightmare noise gags as George faces a newly cacophonous world.
Slipping easily between modes (comedy, melodrama, musical), The Artist contains any number of superb moments: the montage in which George and Peppy fall in love while filming a tango; the noble Uggie's race to save his master; the scene in which George sinks into quicksand in a last doomed starring vehicle, while Peppy sheds a tear in the balcony.
Such scenes might sound downright corny – to use a word that's itself an exhibit from the museum of dead slang. But The Artist is a noble defence of corniness. The challenge Hazanavicius sets himself is to dispense with cynicism, to take the direct, economical (but hardly unsophisticated) language of silent cinema on its own terms.
When today's mainstream cinema language has become hopelessly weighed down with redundancy and routine, Hazanavicius rediscovers the galvanising power of the simple, well-presented image. But he isn't lamenting how much cinema has lost, so much as showing how much it can regain, if only film-makers would respect our capacity to appreciate the fundamental power of moving pictures. Retro but totally modern, frivolous yet fundamentally serious, The Artist is a thing of grace and joy and a great American film – of the sort it takes the French to make.
Jonathan Romney steels himself for The Iron Lady