As Hollywood ramps up its hype-machine in preparation for February’s Academy Awards, the frontrunner at the moment (in terms of buzz) is a French-produced silent film homage to 1920s cinema. If anyone was told that two years ago, they’d no doubt respond with looks of confusion but lo: with the wide release of The Artist, we may be seeing the first non-talkie to win Best Picture since 1929. But does it deserve all this attention and praise, or is it simply the latest award-contender to be fitted with producer Harvey Weinstein’s patented Oscar-magnet?
As with OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, an earlier film of director Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is a tribute to films of a bygone era, recreating the look and style of old films with painstaking detail. There are references to classics of the period, not limited to visual riffs on Citizen Kane and a plotline re-worked from A Star is Born. OSS 117’s Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a star of the silent screen in 1929 Hollywood. Though currently famous in his native France, Dujardin’s preposterous, handsome features could easily have made him a matinee idol back in the day. We see Valentin enjoy tremendous success at the opening of the film, though the advent of the talking picture looms just around the corner, threatening to make silent stars (with their very arch acting styles) utterly irrelevant. Enter the plucky ingénue: Peppy Miller, a young wannabe played by Bérénice Bejo, they meet by accident outside the premiere of Valentin’s latest movie and the press become enthralled by this moment caught on camera – Who’s that girl? asks the headline of Variety. Peppy’s career is immediately ignited, setting it on an upward trajectory that will only be matched by Valentin’s fall from fashion and fortune.
Hazanavicius’ film has received such a immense critical reception that its inevitable backlash has already started. Detractors have suggested that while an enormous amount of attention has been paid in recreating the style of the period, The Artist could never exceed the films it pays homage to: that while it successfully produces a faithful-looking companion to movies of the 20s, the project is ultimately an empty bag of tricks – a soufflé, if you will. However, the extraordinary charm of the two leads alongside a genuinely earnestness expressed amongst the nods and references provides a beating heart to the movie. With a minimal amount of dialogue told through inter-title cards, it is a remarkable reminder of how superfluous words can often be in telling a compelling story.
It seems increasingly rare to be able to recommend a film that’s both experimental yet completely accessible to a broad audience but perhaps that is the most remarkable part of The Artist: whilst being a nostalgic look back at how far cinema has come in the last hundred years, we’re also reminded of what movies can be, even after you’ve stripped away all the explosions and CG robots.
See it with a date. Watch it your mother. Go by yourself and catch it in a packed cinema if you can. You probably won’t regret it.