What should have been a little gem discovered by accident and treasured has been inflated, trumpeted and shoved through our screens by the Weinsteins. It’s difficult not to feel over familiar with The Artist prior to watching it, so powerful has the hype behind it been. Fortunate then that this feeling lasts approximately thirty seconds into the film, as the beauty and intelligence presented here is unfolded on screen with a care and a skill that come along rarely. As soon as George Valentin starts dancing in front of the audience with his dog, The Artist has you.
Set during the last days of silent cinema and the first footsteps of all singing, all dancing, all talking films, the fall of one style against the rise of the other is mirrored by two performers. George Valentin is an established star of the silent movies, of the adventure serial and the swashbuckler, he refuses to believe that his audience will desert him for the the new form on the horizon. Peppy Miller is the bright eyed future, cute (via advice from Valentin), talented and blessed with luck, Peppy becomes one of the first queens of the “talkies”.
Michel Hazanavicius appears to have surpassed all expectations with this, his third feature. Managing to make a genuine silent picture (almost), a period drama, a film within a film film (sic) and a knowing pastiche all at the same time is no mean feat. Managing to make them mesh perfectly and pace them exquisitely and sublimely is another level of film making entirely. Nuanced performances pitched perfectly hit all the right notes with the bad (good) jokes, dance sequences and moments of detached reality. A dream sequence where Valentin and the audience can hear everyday sounds but George himself can’t utter a word is both brilliant within the film and a knowing nod to the things we take for granted in modern films. Just one example in a film that constantly surprises by continually surpassing itself in ambition and is blessed with a galloping narrative.
Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo play George and Peppy respectively. Dujardin is all flash smiles, perfect hair and conquering confidence. Charming and tender with a wink for the audience he perceives as everyone to some degree. Bejo is unique and memorable, other worldly yet attainable. Her stratospheric rise montage is a pleasure to view. Together they share a bond from the start, their forbidden love obvious and painful as it becomes less and less likely to bear fruit. Ably supported by John Goodman who has a big, loud face built for overt expressions and James Cromwell, always better when not making a sound anyway (a compliment by the way), there are no complaints about the acting here. The Oscar is near guaranteed for Dujardin.
If straws have to be clutched at (and they always do) then the middle section sags ever so slightly with Valentin’s decline and fall from stardom depicted in a series of funny but heavyhanded metaphors, from going downstairs, to sinking in quicksand to literally being unable to stop traffic. Valentin the loser is no fun to be around, drunk and prideful and well, just like us. Movie stars have to be gods, straddling the screen behemoth-like. Pulling the rug totally out from under George is a neat trick but is dwelt on for (just) too long. However, when you have an ending of such panache, such flair, that within five minutes, jaws have been dropped and hearts skipped several beats it’s an easy flaw to forgive. The final moments of The Artist are staggeringly good, packing emotional punch, hearty comedy and a lovely reminder of the magic of the silver screen and if you get ’em at the end etc, etc…..
If The Artist has a flaw, and it might not, it lies in depth. As frothy and mostly light hearted as this tale must, MUST be, that could prove limiting in that most elusive department, longevity. Craving success 5, 10 and even 20 years down the line might be asking too much when keeping people happy in the dark is a hard enough thing to begin with. However, other Oscar bothering films have left footprints that the future will discover for themselves (Think There Will Be Blood or The Social Network) whereas The Artist feels ever so slightly like a flash in the pan.
So, a fine, well crafted, joyful film, maybe only tainted by a lurking feeling that, after the hype dies down and the multiple Oscars are stowed in the appropriate bathrooms, that we were hoodwinked by Harvey yet again. That, on repeat viewings, in the harsh light of day, The Artist might become translucent, a paper thin, one joke homage to a film era long passed. Time will tell.