Director Michel Hazanavicius' film The Artist is ingenuous, expressive, joyful and melancholy at the same time. Shot almost entirely as a traditional, monochrome silent movie, with music, cue cards and all, it uses the traditional rise and fall story line – a backbone of many great films – to become the stand out film of 2011.
In 1927 Hollywood silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is riding the crest of a wave. His movies are packed and leave audiences rolling in the aisles. All is about to change when the vain and self-obsessed actor takes nervy, dreamy young extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) under his wing.
'If you want to be an actress, you need something that the others don’t have,' he tells her. Miller takes the advice and quickly ascends the ladder to become a major star in the dawn of the 'talkies'. But while her star rises in this new age of sound, Valentin’s falls dramatically.
The Artist gives modern day audiences the chance to discover the joys of the earliest days of cinema, where actors had to be much more expressive. It’s a tribute to the two leads and the excellent supporting cast – which features well-known names like John Goodman and James Cromwell, in addition to a very talented canine – that they convincingly rise to the challenge.
Jean Dujardin gives a particularly compelling performance as a man who struggles to come to terms with how his life has fallen to pieces so quickly. But it’s Bérénice Bejo who’s likely to be remembered best. She is Audrey Hepburn with the feet of Ginger Rogers – charming, radiant and with a spring in her step.
One of the most notable things about The Artist is that Peppy Miller remains something of an enigma. We never see her actually act on-screen. What is the draw? What does she have that Valentin lacks?
The film also illustrates just how much negative reactions to one’s circumstances can damage perceptions of other people. When Miller is successful, jealousy and self-pity have such an effect on Valentin that he refuses to accept her help – or, in fact, any help – in getting his career back on track.
The plot is simple, and some might argue derivative, but for me unfettered storytelling, with genuine characters such as these, is a rarity these days. So many modern film-makers feeling the need to clutter up their movies with obvious exposition and thrilling set-pieces. There’s only one such set-piece in this film – and it’s an important part of a superbly executed finale, followed by a redemptive epilogue that is worthy of the picture that precedes it.
The Artist, like JJ Abrams’ Spielberg homage Super 8, is successful because it is both a tribute to and a lament for a bygone era. In this case, a time when movies were in their infancy, when the well-worn narratives of today were being conceived, and when stars were being born in front of seemingly less discriminating eyes. A time when anything seemed possible.
The screening of The Artist at the Foyle Film Festival was it's Northern Irish Premiere. Check out the other films at the Foyle Film Festival this weekend.