The idea of homaging a certain era of film – both in terms of style and content – is hardly a new one. Mel Brooks had much fun in the 1970s with Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie, while Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez revisited the scratchy prints and exploitation aesthetic of 1970s B-movies with their Grindhouse projects. But it’s rarer for such homages to be played straight – all of the above are essentially comedies or parodies. The closest ‘serious’ cinema has got in recent years is the work of Guy Maddin, with movies such as The Saddest Music in the World or Cowards Bend the Knee deliberately evoking the look and feel of a bygone cinematic time. With The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius attempts something different – to make a film the style of a 1920s silent movie while also telling a story about the era itself and the constantly evolving world of Hollywood.
The film opens in 1928, at the premiere of the new movie staring George Valatin (Jean Dujardin). He’s the no.1 leading man in Hollywood, whose chiseled good looks and smug twinkle has made him a massive box office draw. Behind closed doors, his marriage to fellow star Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) is on the rocks, and his attentions are quickly diverted when aspiring young starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) walks into his life. But George hasn’t counted on the advent of the talkies killing the silent film industry almost overnight. Pretty soon the roles have dried up and George can only look on as Peppy climbs the Hollywood ladder herself.
The Artist is a film doing several things at once – it’s a history lesson, love-letter to cinema and meta in-joke – but Hazanavicius realises that none of this would mean a thing unless he’s able to tell a great story. And that doesn’t mean a particularly original story – the plot is essentially that of George Cukor’s A Star is Born – but it is told with such wit, warmth and a complete understanding of how to engage an audience that it seems genuinely fresh. Without ever feeling disjointed, it’s a film of two halves. In the first, Dujardin revels in his role as Valantin, a man so used to being at the top that he simply cannot conceive of it being any other way. There are so many great sequences – a dance routine between Dujardin and Bejo in which they can only see each other’s legs, much amusement with John Goodman’s exasperated studio boss, and in the scene where George nearly seduces Peppy – genuine, electrifying chemistry.
A brilliantly realised dream sequence marks the film’s turning point, as Valentin finds success slipping from his grasp. And it does get surprisingly dark as our hero loses everything – wife, house, career – and is reduced to selling his tuxedo and auctioning every last memento he owns. There are some cruel one liners – “my father is a big fan”, Valentin is told by one of Peppy’s fresh-faced boyfriends – but it’s the dormant connection between George and Peppy that provides the film’s true emotional content. For much of the film they are apart, Valentin forced to look at the queues round the block for her latest movie, while his is playing to near-empty houses. But they are never far from each other’s thoughts, leading to some truly poignant, heartbreaking scenes as she tries to help this proud man get back on his feet.
And lest we forget, all of the above is performed, for nearly two hours, wordlessly. Every performer – from Dujardin and Bejo to Hollywood players Goodman, Miller and James Cromwell, playing George’s faithful butler – nails the exaggerated style of acting that defined the silent era, and the attention to period detail is impeccable. Guillaume Schiffman’s gorgeous monochrome photography (in full-frame of course) and Ludovic Bource’s sweeping orchestral score cap off what is unquestionably one of the films of the year. Despite the film’s acclaim, The Artist may still prove a tough sell for the Weinstein Company (and Entertainment in the UK), but I’m certain that if they can get viewers into cinemas there are few audiences that won’t be won over by its many, many charms.