Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo star in the wonderful The Artist (2011)
Hollywoodland, 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the silver screen's most luminous stars, sharply suited and boasting a smile as bright as it is wide. His latest picture, A Russian Affair, has just become a storming success, and the actor (a blend of Fred Astaire, Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin) is at the height of his powers. An adoring fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), accidentally stumbles into Valentin outside the film's premiere, and the pair are photographed by a local paper (WHO'S THAT GIRL?). Soon she's singing in the chorus line and, via montage, works her way up the ranks of America's most glittering industry. Hazanavicius' film charts her meteoric rise and Valentin's disastrous fall, all played out in silent black and white. But this isn't just romantic kitsch. Oh no. The Artist is a classy, confident film which can rank alongside any masterpiece of the silent era...
This 1.33:1 dream of a film evokes the silent period with such incredible detail that you'll be doing a double take when Malcolm McDowell rears his head in an amusing (but largely pointless) cameo. The dressing rooms, the costumes, the cars, the architecture, the music... this is the most beautiful of films; a love letter to the medium itself. Guillaume Schiffman's photography is gorgeous, perfectly recreating (but never looking like an imitation of) the aesthetic of 1920's cinema. Occasionally we are allowed to sample snippets from Valentin and Miller's films (I'd love to see Beauty Spot), which have the exact right amount of grain to feel accurate. Valentin seems to have his own crime serial, recalling Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915), perhaps in a nod back to Hazanavicius' native France. The use of title cards also plant us firmly into the period, although some carry jokes which are a little too self-knowing for my tastes. Most of the films self-reflexion is subtle though, working as a gentle wink to the film buffs in the audience. There are two references to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), the first of which, set at a breakfast table, is an absolute delight.
Hazanavicius' film presents an industry on the brink of change (1927 is the year Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier), and his sense of the period is impeccable. Casting John Goodman as big time studio mogul Zimmer was a stroke of genius, recalling the actor's roles in Barton Fink (Coen's, 1991) and Matinee (Dante, 1993). His presence and energy engulf the frame, and he also gets one of the most rewarding lines (yep, a talkie). Dujardin is also perfect as Valentin, exuding charisma and talent in every frame. His knack for physical comedy was explored in Hazanavicius' James Bond spoof series OSS (2006, 2009), but nothing could have prepared us for the actor's tour de force performance here, which won him the Best Actor prize in Cannes earlier this year. Bejo is also an impossibly charming screen presence, and her final dance number with Dujardin is the films most impressive sequence. They're both note-perfect, and a close-up of their extravagant grins will surely send every audience member out on a high.
How could we discuss a silent movie without mentioning its score, this one composed by Ludovic Bource, who seems to be having the time of his life. It soars with emotion, radically shifting in tone and tempo as the film moves from a toe-tapping dance-off to a spectacular sound-infused nightmare, where Valentin's dressing room suddenly springs to life, attacking the star with its natural noises. "This is the future!" says Zimmer of sound films, a reality many stars had to face in the late 1920's, including Marlene Dietrich, who is evoked through several noir-inflected posters for Peppy Miller movies. The Artist is a truly sensory experience, combining lavish visuals, sweeping orchestration and larger than life performances to carry the audience off their feet into a past world. Sitting in the Odeon on a cold October morning I felt transported back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Imagine my disappointment when Cary Grant wasn't reclining in the lobby with a latte.
Rapturously entertaining, The Artist won audience's hearts at Cannes and it'll no doubt be the talking point of London. There are no words to describe the feeling of elation it left me with. I learned today that the film has a confirmed UK release date of December 30th. It'll be a little late, but this is truly cinema's Christmas gift to the nation. And honestly, we couldn't have asked for anything better.
The Artist is playing at the London Film Festival on Saturday 22nd October. Its official UK release date is December 30th.