A caveat: I am francophile. I acknowledge this conflict of interests here because I want to put it to one side in order to gush unashamedly about ‘The Artist’.
Perhaps the least surprising thing about Christmas this year is the success of ‘The Artist’. It has already won the ‘New York Film Critics Circle Award’ for Best Film and is a good bet for a nod at this years Oscars. In fact, after seeing it the other night, I will be surprised if it is not nominated in categories across the board. It is, without doubt, wonderful.
In the era of 3D, a silent film could easily been seen as merely a gimmick or maybe even as a sermon from our esoteric European cousins on the art of film-making. It is possibly both of these but not necessarily because it intends to be; and therein lies its genius. In fact what makes this quite brilliant is the way Hazanavicius seems to deliberately employ hackneyed cinematic techniques just in order to revitalize them. Even Valentin’s dog is charming and fun (and I hate dogs).
Uncontrollable smiles will spread across the faces of viewers as George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) breezes his way through scene after scene of joyful film-making. There are too many memorable moments which could be spoiled by an over-eager reviewer but Hazanavicius skillfully captures, with brief but carefully crafted scenes, the intimacy of a blossoming relationship and the strangeness of reconciliation.
It unsurprising that sound becomes an essential feature of how this film forges its emotional content. At times, certain sound effects are intentionally ‘dubbed’ to ensure that viewers are immersed in the era and the director is remarkably consistent; it is so successful that when you hear a song with actual lyrics for the first time after approximately an hour (and there is only one in the film) it is jarring.
My only criticism is that slowly the film loses some of its pace as it gradually descends into a lull with the protagonist. Although this is certainly intentional, it tries too hard to plumb the emotional depths of this failing Artist and consequently some of the scenes feel a little protracted.
Yet, amidst all this fun, there are also (perhaps) moments of something more serious. It is possible that in the final minutes of the film Hazanavicius poses questions about the hegemony of American cinema or about the cultural prejudice in Anglophone societies, but those moments move so quickly, and are so surprising, that very little is made of them. Having said that, they are pointed enough to continue to reverberate with the viewer after the film has finished.
The Artist is tender, affectionate and, more than anything, joyous.