The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius, 100 mins (PG)

5.00

A French pastiche on American silent film is a smart, witty treat – and much more besides

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.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney steels himself for The Iron Lady

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits