Very few films have the wit, flair and sheer audacity to leave you smiling hours after the final credits. The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ dazzling black and white homage to 1920s Hollywood delivers all of that — then slays you with an achingly romantic storyline that belongs to another cinematic era. Oh, and did I mention that there’s barely a word of audible dialogue here?
With a nod to Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist is about how the arrival of talking pictures destroyed the careers of some of the silent era’s biggest stars. In 1927 matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) plays to the adoring crowds at the premiere of his latest movie, A Russian Affair. With his slicked-back hair, pencil moustache and cute canine sidekick, this guy is so suave he probably goes to bed in his top hat and tails. His wife and co-star Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) is less enamoured by his attention-hogging antics and spends her idle moments quietly defacing his image on magazine covers.
The opening shot of the swashbuckling film within the film is a huge close up of George’s anguished face, as he’s being tortured for information. “I’ll never talk!” he cries, in a clever allusion to the character’s refusal to embrace the medium’s new technology. Though The Artist has a fabulous musical score throughout, sound has no place in George’s world. Then after half an hour we do hear the satisfying thud of glass on table, and the effect is as startling as those first splashes of colour in Pleasantville. We laugh, but this turns out to be just part of George’s nightmare.
The Artist also borrows from A Star is Born, as the rise of starlet Peppy Miller (played by Hazanavicius’ wife Bérénice Bejo) coincides with George’s long and humiliating decline. At first he just gives her some professional attention (those legs!) and anoints her with the trademark beauty spot that propels her through the Hollywood firmament. But from the moment she drops her purse at his feet outside the movie theatre, we know she’s fallen deeply in love.
With minimal use of intertitles, The Artist relies on our willingness to follow a story without dialogue – a rare opportunity these days. Sometimes you can lip-read, as when John Goodman’s cigar-chomping mogul is barking out instructions on the set. The qualities of George’s loyal assistant, Clifton, can also be divined from every crease in James Cromwell’s face. Hazanavicius makes skilful use of montage to chart Peppy’s rise from bit player (sometimes billed as Peppi) to the undisputed Queen of Hollywood.
Above all, The Artist uses the looks and vivacity of its two leads to make this love story come alive. Both give superb performances. Dujardin is French, but his George has the all-American handsomeness of a Fairbanks or a Gable. He’s a show-off and a fool, but he also embodies the qualities of a tragic hero that carry this film into some very dark territory – aided by Guillaume Schiffman’s expressionistic photography. When George gazes into a pawnshop window, his head momentarily appears superimposed onto that famous suit, and we see the mixture of pride and despair.
Bejo is an equally impressive combination of old-school glamour and real emotional depth. Her talented but very ambitious Peppy is always more than just a heartless coquette with a dazzling smile. In one of the best scenes in the film, she steals into George’s dressing room and embraces his suit as it hangs limply on the peg. (A touch of surrealism shows a disembodied hand playfully responding.) But while she revels in the media adulation, Peppy weeps as she watches George swallowed up by quicksand in his flop movie – a fitting metaphor for his career.
When the retro-style opening credits rolled I was worried that The Artist might turn into one of those slick but cynical pastiches, like Soderbergh’s loathsome The Good German. But Hazanavicius, who made the OSS 117 spy spoofs, has done more than just copy the cinematic style of the 1920s and 30s. He’s given movie buffs a wealth of detail and in-jokes within the context of an involving drama. Fans of Hitchcock’s Vertigo may be astonished to hear Bernard Herrmann’s sublime Love Theme during Peppy’s climactic dash to save the stricken George. Tears well up and cinematic worlds collide: it’s a triumph.
The Artist is released in the UK on 30 December 2011. You can read my other reviews from the 55th BFI London Film Festival @Sound on Sight