It is not difficult to approach Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist with trepidation. Fresh off multiple Oscar victories, the humble film about the dawn of the ‘talkie’ era of cinema is best known for being silent.
The biggest fear is that this lack of dialogue is a cheap gimmick. The second is that the film will fail to hold your interest and be full of mawkish gurning by all concerned. The third is that, when a film is so lauded by critics and cineastes worldwide, it might well be a smug exercise in self-referentiality.
The fact that none of the above is true would be the biggest testament to the quality of Hazanavicius’ film, if there wasn’t so much else to love about it.
Tracking the story of silent film icon George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a box-office staple in the Golden Age of late 1920s Hollywood, The Artist is first and foremost a study of its protagonist. He’s stuck in a drab marriage, but he hits it off with aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bojo) just as the talkie era is beginning, and just as his popularity is on the wane. And just as Valentin begins to lose the limelight, Miller steps into it.
If this storyline doesn’t inspire much excitement, it’s understandable: this is well-trodden cinematic fare, strikingly similar to one of cinema’s best-loved classics, the immortal Singin’ In The Rain. This comparison may initially seem unfair, but narratively Hazanvicius’ film owes a great deal to Gene Kelly’s opus, and in Dujardin possesses a leading man who may not equal Kelly (who could), but who is harnessing all the 1920s charisma his athletic frame can emit. He wears it well.
As Valentin, Dujardin is nothing short of spellbinding. He has the old-school good looks, the strong features, the dancer’s grace and emotional oomph to carry the film without uttering a sentence. What’s most impressive about this deservedly Oscar-winning performance is the subtlety and depth of it; in the film-within-a-film sequences, or in front of the hordes of flashbulb-wielding press, we see Valentin grinning manically, raising his eyebrows alarmingly high and sweeping through shots – he is overplaying it at every turn.
Yet off-screen, Dujardin’s star is a complex, layered creation. With a crease of the forehead or purse of the lips, he radiates humanity as the façade of stardom cracks and crumbles; one scene in particular – as Valentin is forced to confront the ashes of his once perfect life – is spine-tinglingly well-played. Dujardin’s is a dual role, and whether channelling the charm of screen legends or seething with embittered, desperate rage, his is a performance for the ages.
Alongside Dujardin, Berenice Bojo is also terrific, and the screen is aglow every time she enters it. Peppy Miller is a slight caricature, sure – the small-town girl with big-city dreams – but Bojo, like Dujardin, crafts a human being rather than a character, full of sparky life at the film’s outset before falling prey to the trappings of stardom as she wins audiences over.
Add to this a superb supporting cast – James Cromwell and John Goodman both excel – and the best performance by an animal since I-don’t-know-when (Uggie the dog, we salute you), and you realise the depth and variety of talent on show is marvellous.
Yet for all its magic, the greatest quality The Artist possesses is an understanding of silence, and a love of the medium which seems to flow from the director’s mind out through his crisp lenswork.
Within fifteen minutes, you’ve already forgotten that dialogue is a part of movies, and begin to understand the emotions and stories being conveyed without ever needing to hear a word. Ludovic Bource’s sublime score, the myriad stunning performances and Hazanaivicius’ astute, sparing use of intertitles mean that silence never strays into self-satire: this is simply the best way the French-Lithuanian director thought to tell his tale, and it’s devastatingly effective.
If it seems strange to preach caution at the outset of a review, then to gush wholeheartedly throughout, that’s because, well, it is. Yet there’s a dreamlike beauty, an intangible charm, a pure cinematic joy about Hazanavicius’ film which few movies are able to imbue in their audiences. The most deserving Best Picture winner in years, and a film that generations past, present and future should cherish.
Verdict: The defining film of 2012? Almost certainly. You will struggle, this year or any other, to find a piece of filmmaking as enrapturing, as magical, as simply uplifting as Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. This is a picture worth more than a thousand words.