OK, it’s true, The Artist really is one of the films of the year. (“Film Of The Year!” say the posters.) I saw a preview this morning, at which I felt I was one of only a few critics seeing it for the first time. (Yes, hardened film critics are going back to see if for a second time – that’s how good it is.) Although it was premiered at Cannes in May, and has thus been seen by most of the big film critics, it’s released here on December 30, which is a risky marketing strategy as most things-of-the-year lists have already been compiled, including mine for Radio Times.
It is, in case you are in the dark, a silent movie, about the silent movie era. What an inspired idea. It comes from French director Michel Hazanavicius and is a French film. And yet, it is utterly international, as it has no dialogue. It’s all over the Golden Globe nominations (it was released in the States in November) and it will be subsequently all over the Oscar nominations, and the Baftas, never mind all those critics’ circles awards, and international equivalents. Why has everybody fallen head over heels with a black-and-white movie set in the 1920s and 30s that’s been painstakingly made to look like a movie made in the 1920s and 30s?
Well, there’s the artistry of the exercise. The look and feel of The Artist is utterly convincing. It is postmodern by its very nature – and there are one or two clever, metatextual touches, including an opening sequence in which the main character, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) plays a secret agent who is being tortured in order to make him talk – but on the whole it’s played as a sincere love letter to the silent form, and the silent age. Like Singin’ In The Rain, its rise-and-fall story is rooted in the difficult transition from silent movies to talkies, but it deals with this in a soundless way. With just period music – and one isolated, breathtaking transgression which I will not spoil – The Artist tells its simple story using visuals, “mugging” and traditional title cards (exquisitely rendered, of course).
Both Dujardin and his co-star Bérénice Bejo are delightful. They sing (although we can’t hear them), they dance, and they emote in that melodramatic, silent manner without making it seem false or hokey. There is no layer of irony here. You forget you’re watching a film made in the 21st century. Quite how they’re going to get young people into this film, I do not know. Maybe they won’t. I grew up watching silent movies, and black and white films, on TV as a kid, so have no prejudice against either. But I wonder if I am fortunate in that respect, as I don’t have to acclimatise to watch one on the big screen. People of a younger generation may need to. And may not wish to do so.
It’s sort of impossible to judge this audacious and original film against its contemporaries. I decided that Drive was my favourite film of the year, but you can’t compare it to The Artist. It’s a pointless exercise. This is by far the best silent movie of this year, or any year this century!
I understand Michale Hazanavicius is known for having made a series of French films spoofing the 60s spy genre. I can safely say that this is not a spoof. It is a loving tribute. And impossible not to love back. The critics, or some of them, actually applauded at this morning’s screening. That doesn’t happen. I truly hope that paying cinemagoers will help make it a hit. Not so that everybody starts making silent movies, but so that we broaden our horizons a bit in the digital age.