For all intents and purposes, it seems true to say that anachronism and nostalgia come as a package, one begetting the other. Often this may lead to overt sentimentalism, but The Artist, recipient of this year’s Academy Award for Best Film, is a picture built not around longing for the past, but an homage to the origins of cinema. Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted a classic tale about the evolution of the medium, marrying the idiosyncrasies of high silent film with an introspective account of the transition from silent cinema to “the talkies”.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the pinnacle of his career as Hollywoodland’s premier silent film actor. His eyes sparkle and pencil moustache bristles as with joyful gesticulation and unsounding laughter he signs autographs and waggishly winks at his young devotees. His career is doomed, however, as the late twenties host the usurpation of his silent cinema sovereignty by ‘talking’ film. Though the budding format seems to George new-fangled and laughable, it is fully embraced by the public and by adorable rising star Peppy Miller (to the 1920’s what Meg Ryan was to sentimental audiences 70 years later, played by Bérénice Bejo). Despite their ensconcement in each opposing kind of film, Peppy and George brim with fascination and admiration for the other, and sadness for the changing of the times.
The Artist submits that film is a medium of endless possibility and with a long and healthy future, yet omits today’s glittery special effects and blockbuster gimmicks. It is a film-lovers’ film, one that might inhabit a space that no longer exists, before ‘mainstream’ and ‘arthouse’ cinema divorced in the late 20th century: a film that is artwork whilst still being what we might call a ‘crowd-pleaser’. Perhaps more than anything, The Artist speaks as though from a time when “the public” was a newly commercialised corpus, wholesome and excitable, never compartmentalised and analysed, and certainly without such dubious tastes as today.
Filmed in black and white, The Artist is an earnest and loving resuscitation of cinematic classicism. Scenes are framed and shot with a view to capturing moments that resemble the sum total of films like Chinatown, Rear Window, Sabrina and Cleopatra (the Haciendas, Art Nouveau statuettes and voluptuous Coupés abound), and the roles of George Valentin oft resemble the wishful casting of Laurence Olivier as Middle Eastern princes, Greek epic heroes or Shakespearean swashbucklers. The era is tangible, yet Hazanavicius has sensitively avoided glutting on overt cinema references. The movements of each actor are choreographed so as to hint at the legacy of the high-frame-rate (and therefore slightly sped up) slapstick wackiness that characterised early film whilst never crossing into farce. In all, The Artist adopts the best of silent era techniques, Hazanavicius worthily portraying the era and not simply doing a silent film.
Jean Dujardin seems to have been born in black and white. His physicality and appearance are those of a Golden Era star, when male leads were older, dapper and without a trace of boyishness. The pinnacle of manliness was not to shoot a gun or jump from a moving vehicle but to write cheques and smoke cigars, wear a suit properly and to stop listening if a young woman’s legs were exposed nearby. The wiry figure of Bejo is less of the 30’s actress as we think of her; regal, husky-voiced and lazy-lidded women like Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Kepburn. Bejo captures the less-considered flapper darling type of the twenties in whose madcap Charleston and romantic roles is buried the seed of the American sweetheart. Her rendition of Peppy’s over-eager movements is threatened to cross over into uncontrolled flailing and silliness. There are also incredible endearing performances by James Cromwell as Valentin's devoted butler-cum-chauffer and the prolific John Goodman as jowly production bigwig Al Zimmer.
Some mention should be made of the entertainment value of scripting in a sidekick dog. It’s tricks and unconditional obedience was simple, yet uproariously successful way of getting the audience onside (if the improprietous chortling from the senior citizens in the theatre I visited was anything to go by). An adjunct to Dujardin’s performance, perhaps this savvy canine served little more than to allow Dujardin to smile that magnificent winning grin, and perhaps more credence is given to the “dog’s performance” than need be by other commentators, and the sincerity of the film was palpable regardless of the scruffy Jack Russell.
Sound is the flesh of The Artist. The film achieves an elegant balance of shifts in Foley, dialogue and score, as well as total silence. As a silent film made in an era of complex sound layering and artistry (the Los Angeles Times’ introduction to Foley is a sweet entry-level descriptor, though of course the intricacy of a Transformer morphing is perhaps the best example of where contemporary sound mixing and editing is at), The Artist had an unlimited audio palette. It’s almost a feat that Hazanavicius and his sound team had the restraint to produce a film that makes use only of the sounds it needed to: the flourish here is in what is not used. It’s quite absorbing to watch a contemporary film that employs only one sound at a time, whether strong wind, telephone peal or footsteps, each noise starring in it’s own solo moment.
However, The Artist is largely without Foley. Just as in the silent era, it is uniquely composed orchestral music that comprises most of the audio track for The Artist. French composer Ludovic Bource has written a lively score that constantly ebbs and flows with mood, theme and tempo. It’s almost an onslaught, as the score must act as background music, emotive cue, voice and sound effects all at once. At many points the score is dangerously hammy, and surprisingly these moments come not in comedic sequences, but when characters are in crisis. It’s as though, because this is a film about film, the score is reminding us (as Wes Craven once did with The Last House on the Left), that it’s only a movie.
For some viewers, The Artist may border on the maudlin side of nostalgia, and indeed is a highly earnest and certainly inoffensive film. Yet, this warning is really only for those, quite unlike myself, are without a large capacity for romance. Rather, one might see The Artist as the culmination of several recent attempts at extolling the virtues, history and very essence of film. These include Spielberg’s 2011 backyard-movie adventure Super 8 and the magical account of Méliès’ career in the otherwise saccharine Hugo (3D) by Scorsese (a director of such weight that his name goes without red underline in Microsoft Word). For Spielberg and Scorsese this look back into the way cinematic fantasy is born is surely due to their advanced careers, their longevity and age within the film industry. But for Hazanavicius, the word film is less about miracle than it is about mankind: a restless civilisation hungry for progress and with so many ‘golden eras’ to its name that only film can contain them. There’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, of silent film, of black and white, celluloid, hand-wound cameras and of all the historical bubbles they represent (George Valentin’s repertoire includes Musketeer and jungle explorer, but one easily finishes this sentence with ‘Robin Hood, Greek God, Egyptian Queen and Sinbad’). The Artist wrangles technique, allusion, history and narrative into a cohesive portrait of the pictures. But perhaps most of all, The Artist suggests that art and entertainment used to be, and may again be, at least some of the time, synonymous.