What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate; and like Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke (1967), George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) refuses to fall in line even though it is easy to see, from the outside, that it would be beneficial to himself if he didn’t let pride get in his way.
Valentin is a massive movie star during a time when the only sounds you would hear during a film were the gentle tap of piano keys in front of you, or the squelch of lovers’ lips colliding behind you. Eventually, films that became known as ‘talkies’ would come along and destroy the memories of silent cinema. When this happens, Valentin becomes a lonely star, no longer able to shine, destroyed by the very industry that made his name. Valentins plight mirrors that of many silent movie stars, who’s careers were shattered by the arrival of sound; such a landmark technological achievement in cinema.
Every good story needs a hero and a villain, and here, Valentin is both, as he persistently refuses to help himself, but ultimately we ask whether it is pride that holds him back, or a masked feeling of self-doubt.
He goes from top-of-the game to down-and-out almost instantly. The fact that we barely notice this transition happening, demonstrates Michel Hazanavicius’ skilful directing approach, as he slyly shows us how quickly life can change.
Films often attract audiences based on their interest in the subject matter. Surely, it’s a commercial masterstroke to make a movie about movies and this is a film that will be loved by film fans. However, this film celebrates the era it is portraying by following the style of silent cinema; shot in black and white, with a smaller screen and no dialogue. But don’t let that put you off, because this is a well-crafted ode to cinema. Technology in cinema has come a long way since the 1920’s and as such this film will always look crisper then it’s silent counterparts from years gone by. The Artist is a celebration of cinema, but at the same time is critical of the ruthlessness of the movie industry. Movies are such wonderful art forms because of their ability to depict human emotion and their power to deliver a strong message, while entertaining, and ironically, this film about the lack of speech, communicates its points superbly.
The Artist is impeccably written and everything from the editing to the script coincides with the subject matter, but is subtle enough that it never seems gimmicky. This works to such a great effect that it not only makes us empathise with the characters, but also draws us into the style of the film, especially in the dream sequence, which is a delight as it echoes the amazement of 1927 audiences when they first heard Al Jolson say “Wait a minute…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in The Jazz Singer.
The cast is wonderful. None more so than a four-legged, waggily tailed hero. If the Academy Awards introduce a new award to reward the best canine, surely it would mean one Oscar already in the bag this year, for The Artist, and little Uggie the dog.
The Artist is a charming and funny film that makes us connect with the characters emotionally, without the need for dialogue. Perhaps it’s biggest achievement, though, is the manner in which it celebrates the cinema industry, and not just the silent era. A silent film that hails the arrival of talkies. Masterful.