Director: Michel Hazanavicius
IF the bookies are to believed, the Oscar for 2011′s Best Picture is destined for a French, black-and-white production which, if not exactly ‘silent’, is almost entirely dialogue-free. Its protagonist speaks a grand total of two words – but is nevertheless a strong fancy (alongside Shame‘s Michael Fassbender) for Best Actor, against stiff competition from G.Clooney and B.Pitt.
The film in question is The Artist (UK release December 30th), directed by Michel Hazanavicius – whose previous movies, a pair James Bond spoofs starring comedian Jean Dujardin, were notable commercial successes at home but made minimal splash beyond France’s borders. His latest collaboration with Dujardin, however, has propelled both men firmly into the international limelight – Dujardin won Best Actor at Cannes for his irresistibly charming and charismatic turn as George Valentin, a slick-haired 1920s screen-idol who combines the smouldering Latin-lover magnetism of Rudolph Valentino with the lithe-limbed athleticism and easygoing swagger of the peerless Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
And just as Fairbanks struggled to adapt to the coming of sound (Valentino had already gone to the great boudoir in the sky by the time of The Jazz Singer), Valentin suffers the indignity of a riches-to-(almost) rags decline, as the fickle ticket-buying public turns to fresher faces – and voices. His precipitous fall mirrors the rapid rise from obscurity of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a beanpole, bouncy re-imagining of Joan Crawford’s ‘flapper’ persona – their diverging fortunes complicated by an on-off romantic relationship between the pair.
Arriving in our multiplexes while Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is still drawing (limited) audiences, The Artist is another rousingly heartfelt tribute to a bygone, unfairly neglected cinematic era. But whereas Scorsese deploys the latest CGI and candy-coloured 3-D effects to bring the world of early-silents pioneer Georges Méliès to life, Hazanavicius and his cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman (et al) craft an affectionate, relatively lo-fi pastiche of 1920s movie-making styles.
With its near-incessant jazz-age soundtrack and judiciously sparing use of sound-effects, however, The Artist is no “silent” movie. And it certainly takes what experts might dub a casual approach to actual Hollywood chronology. But Hazanavicius does manage to capture the look and feel of films from the 1920s and 1930s – his eye for background detail is unobtrusively delightful – in a manner that should satisfy the strictest cinephile.
Everyone else, meanwhile, will revel in the old-school star-quality of appealing leads Dujardin and Bejo, who enjoy a nonchalant kind of chemistry and hold their own against stiff competition more recognisable supporting players including John Goodman and James Cromwell. Even Malcolm McDowell pops up for a cameo, though it’s disappointing that the British veteran should be restricted to just a single brief scene.
Enjoying rather more screen-time is Valentin’s (mostly) milk-white terrier ‘Uggy’ (played by ‘Uggie’), a delightful canine thespian evidently intended to stir memories of the Thin Man series’ Asta. His presence is perhaps also a sly nod, topically enough, to Tintin’s faithful pooch Snowy – Hazanavicius now joining Belgium’s Hergé as a Francophone creator of a thoroughly European ‘product’ that exerts unexpectedly global nostalgic appeal.
13th December 2011
written for the Christmas double-issue of Tribune magazine