In an underwhelming film year, cinephiles have taken to heart love letters to cinema’s beginnings. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was bestowed with 11 Academy Award nominations, despite its callous haughtiness impeding any love, as it morphed into a lecture. A black-and-white and mostly silent film, The Artist is one behind on 10 submissions.
Hollywood continues to irk even members of its industry with its CGI, quantity-over-quality modus operandi, which has intensified adoration for something as banal as Michel Hazanavicius’s latest picture. That’s not to say The Artist is a bad film. Au contraire. It is charming and a form of escapism within escapism away from the technical ineptitude of many 21st century directors.
And yet it is also very familiar. Actor George Valentin is marginalised once talkies blare out from the studio backlots and becomes depressed, suffering personal and materialistic torment whilst a peripheral silent film extra emerges as a star. It is Sunset Boulevard minus the noir.
Had this been a dialogue-driven film, it would be unmemorable. However seeing an orchestra accompany on-screen soundless film in the opening sequence and Hollywoodland presented in its gorgeous black-and-white Golden Age is undeniably nostalgic.
Technically, it is a superbly made film that it renders the plot as irrelevant. One can surmise how events will conclude, but there are some genuinely impressive feats to behold that quibbling about it feels foolhardy. One shot of Valentin stood motionless on a staircase as the world moves around him is simple yet meaningful mise-en-scène that is also satirically pertinent. Why do most filmmakers shy away from such a practise?
The dapper humour of Jean Dujardin and his dog (played by Uggie, who is deserving of his own Oscar) is genuinely amusing and energises proceedings. Nonchalant supporting turns from actors as diverse as Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell and Missi Pyle ensure that the comedy is three-dimensional.
Bérénice Bejo, the female lead and object of Dujardin’s affections, is surely destined to make waves stateside in light of her resourcefulness as Peppy Miller. As poignant as she is vivacious, when Valentin pencils a faux-mole above her lip to provide her with an iconic trademark, she evokes memories of Rita Hayworth’s introduction in Gilda. And it’s that wistfulness which has seen The Artist strike a chord with lovers and haters of art cinema.
Her and Dujardin’s climactic dance is the key to the naysayers’ hearts. The pair practised fastidiously for five months in the same studio which Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly used for rehearsals when filming Singin’ in the Rain, and the end product is hypnotic. The choreography, pace and clickety-clack soundtrack will be remembered as the film’s money moment.
Much was made of Kim Novak’s distress at the use of Bernard Herrmann’s Scene d’Amour from Vertigo when the actress accused the Hazanavicius of filmic ‘rape’ in an interview with Today. Its inclusion for those familiar with Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a distraction, despite it complementing the specific sequence adequately. Images of a crazed James Stewart simply aren’t welcome though.