...To Say Nothing Of The Dog (Almost)
There are, admittedly, weirder films on release at the moment than Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, but not many and not by much. Star-studded 3D paeans to the dawn of cinema and attempts to combine popular mainstream thrillers with gruelling dissections of sexual politics and violence are both arguably more peculiar than a traditional romantic comedy-drama. Then again, sometimes the medium is the message, and Hazanavicius is boldly re-breaking ground that has lain fallow for many, many decades - and accruing remarkable popular and critical success for what is, after all, a black and white and (mostly) silent movie.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a rather Douglas Fairbanks-ish silent movie star in 1920s Hollywood. Valentin is a big star and rather full of himself, and initially doesn't pay much attention when he crosses the path of aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Valentin gets her a job as an extra on his new movie, and while there's obviously chemistry between them, events conspire so that nothing comes of it.
Time passes and Peppy's star waxes, even as news of a strange new invention reaches the studio: talking cinema. Valentin refuses to even contemplate making a sound movie and embarks upon his own financially risky project, while his former bosses give Peppy her own star vehicle – with sound, of course. One of them is clearly rising, but is the other's fall inevitable? And can they come together long enough to recapture the brief spark they once shared?
Everyone seems to be talking about The Artist, which is probably just as well given that nobody's actually talking in it. Even better, they all seem to be going to see it – as I've mentioned before, it's regularly playing to sold-out houses at the local arthouse. Glowing reviews and a smidge of novelty value clearly have considerable combined influence – and the movie does live up to expectations.
Is this just a novelty film, though? Certainly, making a silent movie pastiche sounds like a very gimmicky idea, and there's a sense in which it's slightly perverse to be making a silent movie about the advent of sound – just as it would be to make a black and white film about the coming of colour. On the other hand, black and white movies are still being made now, over seventy years after the invention of colour stock – perhaps it's a stylistic choice like any other, and Hazanavicius is using the silent format in the same way that, say, Abel Ferrara used monochrome in The Addiction?
Hmm. Even if this was being given as the reason why, I would be dubious – black and white films hung in there for thirty years or more before finally being consigned to the realms of the arty and the terminally low-budget. With a very exceptions, talkies displaced silent movies completely and very rapidly within a handful of years. So it seems unlikely that Hazanavicius is rediscovering a lost and distinct art form. Apparently The Artist emerged from his admiration for the era and its film-makers and also its focus on visual storytelling, and both of these are richly visible in the film itself.
That said, the most obvious kisses to the past in this movie go to Citizen Kane and Singin' in the Rain, both of which were talkies! (The re-use in this movie of parts of Vertigo's score has also been the subject of much recent flapping, which if nothing else has spared me the embarrassment of accidentally burbling on about how authentically the soundtrack imitates Bernard Herrmann…) The visual storytelling in The Artist is the real joy of the film, however – there are relatively few intertitles, and the rest of the movie relies on ceaseless inventiveness and some brilliant flourishes – there are several uses of films-within-the-film, and so on – but also a tremendous understanding of the grammar of editing. The director isn't afraid to play with the conventions of the form, and doesn't let himself be straitjacketed by it either – at a couple of points sound intrudes into The Artist's silent world, always with good reason and to spine-tingling effect.
One of the great things about silent cinema is its ability to travel internationally with a minimum of reworking – and in a similar vein, an international cast coexists here very happily. Jean Dujardin and the winsome Berenice Bejo's previous work in knockabout Bond spoofs will probably be receiving a lot more attention now, while John Goodman and James Cromwell turn up in minor roles. The performer getting the most attention, however, is Uggie the Dog for his scene-stealing turn as the Dog. The Artist has already won the prestigious (it says here) Palm Dog – ‘for the outstanding canine performance at the Cannes Film Festival' – and moves have been made to have Uggie nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year. Somehow I can't see the collective dignity of the Academy standing for that, but it's a nice idea – even if he'd probably end up sharing the stage with Spielberg's flippin' horse…
Anyway. I'm pretty sure the success of The Artist is a one-off – the subject matter really lends itself to this kind of treatment, while I suspect a great deal of the film's appeal derives from a peculiar combination of novelty value and nostalgia. (Even so, I am bracing myself for a slew of inferior knock-offs, not to mention the two leads being shoehorned into unflattering and undemanding supporting roles in big-budget American films a la Sharlto Copley, Monica Bellucci, etc.) Nevertheless the film itself is great fun, witty, romantic and occasionally moving, and it's exactly the kind of self-consciously nostalgic, classic entertainment that Oscar's shown a distinct fondness for in the past. The Palm Dog may continue to receive equally distinguished company throughout the awards season to come.