It’s faintly ironic that after a year in which all of the best films were the miserable ones (as good as The Tree of Life / Melancholia / Kill List and Senna all, they were all pretty miserable for much of their time) that the best film of the year should be a near-silent romantic comedy, shot in black & white with few recognisable names and a director who’s back catalogue hasn’t really been seen outside of France. That The Artist is drawing so many plaudits is all down to one thing – it’s rare that we see such a labour of love on the screen, and even rarer that it becomes so infectious that you can’t help but be smitten. It’s the sort of film that makes you laugh, cry and then laugh & cry within its brief running time, all capped off in a fashion that is note perfect and leaves you beaming about it for days afterwards (SJ & I couldn’t stop recommending it to nearly everyone we met afterwards). I’m sort of glad that I’ve seen it before any of 2012’s releases as I’d otherwise be comparing every film to it, I probably still will.
The stories as old as cinema itself, indeed it’s already been made three times as far as I can think off the top of my head (A Star is Born, the musical version of the same and Singin’ in the Rain). Yes, it’s the old story of one star starting to wane whilst another rises with the invention of talkies – the joke here being that it’s told from the perspective of a silent film. But it’s all done with such wit and lightness of touch that you cannot help but be smitten by it.
No small part of this is down to the leads, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, both of whom commit wholly to the sheer madness of the film (how do you even begin to sell a project like this to a studio) and sell it to the audience. Their performances aren’t pastiche, nor replicas of anyone else but instead almost vaudeville, indeed they do everything but burst into song (since I’ve seen it a frequent comment has been “And bloody hell can he dance!”). Both also have a chemistry that’s rare to see these days, their relationship being entirely chaste – more best friends whom happen to fancy each other than anything else. He in particular is wonderful, all charm (with no smarm) and good manners – indeed a key aspect of the film is that he is a gentleman – part matinee idol, part Citizen Kane (with dancing). She is equally good (indeed the nominations for Supporting Actress downplay just how much of a role she has), moving from devoted fan through to something far deeper by the end of the film. Both provide the film with a lot of heart.
Elsewhere the cast’s equally as good. John Goodman repeats his role in Matinee, looking every inch the big time producer, whilst James Cromwell for once doesn’t look like and act like a psychopath. And yes, the dog does steal every scene he’s in, but there’s an honesty in a film that parodies the Lassie “Timmy in the well” scene so effectively. Malcolm McDowell shows up briefly, and I’m sure there are others who I didn’t see as well.
The real star is the direction. The film mimics the feeling of the silent era perfectly, although it feels thoroughly modern at the same time. It’s aware that it is a product of artifice and wears the fact proudly. There’s the same slightly-fast feeling to the filming that we associate with the time (presumably achieved by the digital equivalent of under-cranking the camera) and the effects are limited to the various editing fades and projections available at the time. Indeed, only the quality of the lighting – the film is never less than gorgeous to look at – gives away that this isn’t merely a restoration.
There are modern elements to the storytelling as well, visual clues placed in the background often take the place of dialogue (there are limited inter-titles) and the score does a lot of the heavy lifting. Music from a number of previous films is used in order to tell the story as well, flashes of familiarity giving subtle clues. It’s edited to within an inch of its life, but never feels rushed, instead gliding along pulling the viewer as it goes, and when sound does emerge (it isn’t silent by any means) it leads to two of the finest jokes in recent memory – including one that only works because the films silent. It’s a wonderful touch.