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The Artist (DVD)
Member Name: SWSt
The Artist (DVD)
Advantages: A charming story filled with excellent acting in an unfamiliar medium
Disadvantages: Flabby middle section. Dog Oscars? Get real!
Filming a tribute to the silent movies of the 20s as an actual silent movie might sound a bit poncy and pretentious, but the simple fact is that it works. Not only does it work, it actually improves the film. As a standard full-colour, dialogue packed film, The Artist simply would not have been as effective; in fact it possibly would have sunk without trace, unnoticed by all but the most hardcore of international film fans. Unlike 3D, the gimmick adds depth and interest to an otherwise pretty much simple and straightforward plot.
That simple plot follows George Valentin, a major star of the silent movie era. When offered an early chance to make the transition into new fangled "talkies", George rejects it, believing them to be a short-lived fad. Instead, he self-finances his own epic new silent movie. When that flops, George is left bankrupt and ignored by the studios. Meanwhile the career of Peppy Miller, a young actress George discovered and mentored, is going into the stratosphere.
The artist is probably best described as a sort of romantic comedy-drama. Not normally my sort of thing at all. However, it's so well scripted, shot and acted that it overcomes its rather predictable plotting. A lot of credit for this should go to Michel Hazanavicius, not just because he wrote the script, but because his directing is spot on. This feels like a real, proper silent movie, not something at playing at being a silent movie. The camera angles, the close-up shots, the fake studio scenery all perfectly capture that era when film was still a new and exciting medium and not an endless parade of sequels and unimaginative action films.
It would have been easy to make The Artist into a seriously cheesy film. Whilst there are moments of cheesiness, this happens within the context of the "silent film" conceit. Look back at a lot of silent films now and they do look rather corny. So, whilst The Artist has its share of dairy-related moments, these add to the film, rather than detracting from it.
Huge credit must also go to the lead actors Jean Dujardin (Valentin) and Bérénice Bejo (Miller) who both inhabit their roles perfectly. Dujardin is the perfect mixture of charm, suave and sophistication; the man the ladies love to love and the men want to be. The cheesy grin on his face, the mischievous twinkle in his eye and his self-assured and confident attitude make George a natural performer. This is all mixed with this is a large dash of arrogance, vanity and insecurity that threaten to bring George down.
Bejo, meanwhile, is charmingly sweet as Peppy Miller, the girl-next-door who catches a big break. Slightly shy and insecure she appears to be the exact opposite of Valentin. Yet behind the sweet exterior also lies an ambitious and determined attitude.
Both roles are played with such charm and self-assurance that it is impossible not to like the two charismatic leads. They could both have come across as insufferably smug and unlikeable. Yet, their respective human flaws make them accessible and it's easy to identify with their highs and lows and feel their contrasting emotions of elation and despair.
There was always a danger that it could have suffered from hammy acting and more mugging than a crime hotspot, but this doesn't happen. On the rare occasions when it does, it is entirely appropriate within the context of the film. Some of the movements and facial expressions are exaggerated, for example, but this was a trick silent movie stars used to convey ideas and emotions without dialogue. Similarly, there are lots of knowing looks to camera and cheesy grins... but again, just watch any Errol Flynn film and you'll see that the acting is well-observed, not over-the-top.
Before we get too carried away, let's get a couple of things straight. First up, The Artist is a good film. Heck I'd even go as far as to say that it's a great film. Just don't believe the hype that it's an all time classic that deserves as many stars and superlatives as you can think of. In an age of endless sequels, The Artist should be widely applauded for trying something different and (mostly) succeeding. However, it's a sad sign of the times and Hollywood's lack of imagination that a solid, 4 star film is instantly acclaimed as "all-time classic".
Secondly: the dog. Yes, he's clever; yes, he's cute. But deserving of a specially created "Animal Performance Oscar"? Oh, please (and this comes from a dog lover). It's just a very well trained dog that is behaving the ways he is either because there are tasty morsels hidden at strategic points on the set (to make sure he sniffs in the right places) or because someone is standing off-camera holding a treat to make sure he looks appealingly (and appealing) in the right direction.
Most seriously, the film is also a little too long. The plot is a very slight and predictable and it's not sufficient to sustain the 100 minute running time. This is most obvious in a flabby middle section which rather hammers home the point that Valentin has fallen on hard times because of his own stubbornness and pride, whilst Miller has become a massive star because she is so down-to-earth and "normal. The constant repetition of this point (albeit in a slightly different way each time) becomes rather tiresome.
This over-extended run-time causes problems with the central gimmick of the "silent film". By the end you are desperate for some dialogue (which, in fairness, you do eventually get). Bear in mind that most silent movies were only 20-30 minutes long, so sustaining a film using no dialogue for almost three times that is a big ask.
The Artist is a breath of fresh air in a release schedule dominated by unimaginative sequels, prequels and re-makes. It will no doubt do very well come the Oscars and I'm certainly not going to begrudge it any success. It's both an excellent homage to silent movies and an enjoyable silent movie in its own right. There's a large question mark over whether it will still be remembered as anything other than a curio in 10 years in time, but let's live in the moment and enjoy it.
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Running time: approx. 100 minutes
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: An excellent and enjoyable homage to the silent movie era