During 2012 a number of films were released that could almost be seen as love letters to the history of cinema. We had Hugo which featured the early career of George Melies and many silent cinema nods. Cabin In The Woods played out as one huge love up/damnation of the horror genre which simultaneously paid tribute to classic horror whilst showing you how horror worked and, by proxy, how simple horror has recently become. Mark Cousins released a beautiful 15 hour long film about the Story Of Film which is a must watch for any film fans. Today’s film is another of these tributes to classic cinema in the form of The Artist. At The Oscars last year it was The Artist and Hugo that swept up a lot of the awards, which kinda says a lot about how nostalgic the Oscar committee are. Does The Artist manage to be more than just a tribute to the early days of cinema? Well, click the link for my irrelevant views.
The Artist follows the story of fiction silent movie era star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he rejects the notion of “the talkies” and subsequently fails to maintain his star power and falls on hard times. Meanwhile a young starlet George makes a connection with early on is making her way to stardom in these “talkie” films which only compounds George’s feelings of rejection and disillusionment. The young woman, Peppy Miller (Bernice Bejo), gradually takes it upon herself to try to bring George out of his funk and give him his life back. The film also stars an awesome dog called Uggie. The vast majority of the film is presented, mostly, as a silent film would be. I’ll likely pick holes in what isn’t quite authentic later but I’ll try not to because to do so would be a little unfair to the pure delight that The Artist is.
It is pretty impressive, in this day and age, for a film that goes so far against the grain of modern cinema to have anywhere near the success that The Artist has had. How many silent films made post 1929 can you name? Probably only a few. How many black & white films do you see per year as new releases? About 2 per year if you’re lucky, and even then you’re talking about films on the fringe like Human Centipede 2. The Artist grossed around $133million in Box Office takings which is pretty damn impressive by any standards. What makes the film work so well is that it tells it’s story with charm, with a healthy dose of comic relief and with the sort of visual storytelling that can never go out of fashion.
When sound wasn’t a thing in movies the visuals and the live performed music was all a film had to get it’s point across. These days there’s a little too much reliance on telling rather than showing. Morgan Freeman has practically made the last 10 years of his career entirely about telling the audience what is happening. This wasn’t always the case in the post sound era of films. I spoke in my Chinatown and Double Indemnity reviews how those films used purely visual methods to tell elements of the story at times. Telling a story 100% with visuals is a very difficult task, and whilst The Artist has 3 scenes with diegetic sound, it’s visual storytelling is pretty damn spot on. It shows just how much of a craftsman director Michel Hazanavicius is that he took his time to study just how to keep the story flowing with minimal interstitial cards. The details help this along with elements such as film titles on posters mimicking the current emotion state of the two leads and using visual queues from films of that era as reference points. For example a breakfast scene that depicts the decline of George’s relationship with his wife mirrors a scene from Citizen Kane.
Jean Dujardin is a natural at portraying a silent film star. George Valentin is clearly modelled on Douglas Fairbanks, a silent era star that struggled to transition to the sound era, they even use a few shots from The Mark Of Zorro (Starring Fairbanks) and insert George into the lead role as though in this world he was the star of that film. Dujardin performs his movements with the sort of poise that silent film stars would in order to accentuate their actions. He’s clearly studied the acting style closely. Similarly Bernice Bejo carries herself with the sort of grace and charm, with a hint of goofiness, of the old school of female stars, it helps that she is really quite a stunning young lady. Generally everyone plays their part well with only, oddly, James Cromwell standing out as George’s butler. It’s not that he doesn’t convey his roles intent well, it’s that he conveys it in a way you’d expect of a modern film rather than a silent film. When everyone else is performing in a silent film style his more restrained approach to emoting sticks out a little. It’s a minor gripe though.
Naturally the film is very heavy on score with only a few moments going fully silent. The score itself does a fine job of mimicking the era’s musical tastes but there are a few missteps. For one the use of the love theme from Vertigo is a slightly bold move. It fits, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the sort of movie quoting only someone like Tarantino pulls off. Although I’d argue that the theme isn’t so recognisable to many of today’s younger audience members, it would be to the film’s target audience though. Other than that I have a slight issue with the opening scene’s use of music. In the first scene we’re watching a film starring George Valentin being played out of a cinema screen. In this scene we see an orchestra performing the film’s music. This is diegetic sound which means it is happening in the world that the characters inhabit. Non-diegetic sound would be sound that we hear but the characters can’t because it doesn’t exist in their world, such as narration or a film score. The problem having diegetic sound in the opening scene causes is that when the music finishes there is a pause, we see George react to the audience’s unheard applause and so now the music is non-diegetic. If the orchestra’s music existed within the film’s reality then why are we hearing it when the film doesn’t employ diegetic sounds again, with the exception of a nightmare scene and the films closing scene. This causes a slight inconsistency in the films reality, but it’s one easily overcome.
Visually the film is very well presented. The 1.33:1 ratio commonly used in the silent film era is used here, the last film I remember doing that was The Good German. The less wide ratio allows the actors to fill the entire frame and is also utilised by Hazanavicius to create some stunningly framed shots. One scene in particular is a meeting between George and Peppy in the Bradbury Building (because very film set in L.A. Needs a scene there). The master shot in this scene is framed so that the room appears like an ant farm with people constantly moving about, up and down the stairs and through corridors like ants burrowing through tunnels. This works as a simple metaphor for the factory like production style of films of the old studio system. At the same time Peppy is moving up the stairs and is above George as they meet on his way down symbolising the shift in their celebrity status and the progression of their careers. Simple stuff but effective.
Now, I dare to pick a hole. Whilst mostly everything is spot on, for example no zoom shots are used in the film as they didn’t exist in the late 20s and early 30s, there is a few missteps. Hazanavicius chose to shoot the film in 22 frames per second to mimic the sped up motion of silent films. Except this sped up motion isn’t a reality of the era and merely a result of the standardisation of film presentation to 24fps in the post sound era. Films back then were filmed at around 18-22fps and were projected at such speeds. They didn’t appear sped up to the audience because they were seeing the film shown at the frame rate it was recorded at. Shooting at 22fps and speeding up to 24 isn’t really enough to have a true sped up effect either so largely it’s an act of futility. Understandably though the film was intended to mirror the audiences perception of silent film and not the reality. To me though it’s an element that was unnecessary.
Overall the Artist is truly a delight of a film that makes a handful of slight missteps but is good enough for those missteps to go unnoticed by the average viewer. Only total nerds like me would pick them out. Jean Dujardin shows just why he’s a star in France, I recommend you see his & Hazanavicius’ OSS117 films, and Bernice Bejo is stunning to watch doing just doing simple things such as smiling and being a goof. Now I can’t judge if it truly deserved the best picture Oscar as I am yet to see Hugo (shame on me… oh and I haven’t seen Shame). I would have picked Drive of all the films I’ve seen from that years qualification period. Then again, The Academy isn’t about awarding the actual best, it’s about award works that are the stars of the moment, and undoubtedly The Artist was the star of the cinema last year.