It somehow seems fitting that the final film on the list is as much a celebration of the medium itself as anything else. The Artist is a film that could only be told within the medium of film (and it has many times), not even television (the closest medium to film) could replicate it. It’s also refreshing that after a list dominated by miserable films exploring the dark recesses of humanity to end on such a positive note. Make no mistake, many viewers will end The Artist with tears in their eyes, but for once they will be tears of joy. The Artist is a joyful experience, not entirely free from anxiety, but one that allows (no, demands) a happy ending.
When I initially watched it I commented that it took a modern approach to filmmaking and applied it to old fashioned story principles. Further viewings have indicated that the story principles are as modern as the filmmaking, this is a film that relies on the audience having an understanding of the genre, the medium and the tropes that dominate it – the film loses some of its strengths without an understanding of the history that feeds it (it also helps to at least heard of either A Star is Born or Singing in the Rain). Whilst it is possible to enjoy it without this understanding, for the ardent film fanatic it raises the whole experience to another level. The Artist is a film that is made with a love of film, by someone who loves the medium and wants to share that with others that love it too. Not even Scorcese’s Hugo (another film about the joys of film released that year) managed to express this love in such a clear and simple fashion, and there was an acknowledged irony in an American writing a love letter to French cinema at the same time as a Frenchman was writing a love letter to American cinema. Watching it it’s clear that everyone shared the need to share their love with the audience, it’s impossible not to feel positive about the possibility of film come the end of it.
But away from all of the meta elements it’s just impossible not to be swept away with the films joy. The two leads manage to be appealing but not flawless, characters that the audience can identify with in terms of their frustrations, hopes and dreams. Around this a slew of supporting characters fill in the blanks of the story, most notably James Cromwell as the ever loyal Clifton (miles away from his normal, more sinister characters) and bizarrely Uggie as the dog that is probably the best pastiche / love letter to Lassie seen on film and almost threatens to steal the film from everyone on at least one occasion. By the time the film culminates in a musical number (and one that you get the sense leaves its stars genuinely breathless) it’s impossible not to have been swept away with it all. On the two occasions I saw it at the cinema the audience burst into applause – there aren’t many films where you can say that happened, and certainly not in the near universal fashion that both audiences did so on these occasions. It was also noticeable that despite the lack of dialogue the audiences remained silent throughout, keen to give their full attention to the film. Yes, perhaps it is a film aimed at a slightly older (or more mature) audience, but even then this feels unusual with today’s audiences.
It would be remiss not to mention Jean Dujardin’s superb performance – a performance somehow enhanced by the silent nature of the film rather than hampered by it. There’s an old school charm about him as an actor, and it’s an absolute joy to watch his purely physical performance. It never descends into shameless mugging, but it often feels that it’s a possibility, and the skill involved in treading that fine line is part of the joy of watching the performance, the sheer physicality of which (one first viewing I just couldn’t get over the ease with which he appeared to dance) sometimes leaves you exhausted.
The Artist doesn’t argue that film can change lives, or that it’s the most important thing in the world, but it does remind us why (most of us) we watch it, to be entertained. It’s thrilling without resorting to violence, a love story that remains purely platonic (even if the film making is modern, the moral framework remains firmly within the Hays Code) but more than anything it’s a reminder that film is a visual medium (although hugely reliant on music to underscore the emotion). It remains the best film I saw that year (and in Hugo and Kill List it had stiff competition) and probably the closest thing to a genuine classic for me since There Will Be Blood (and similarly, one dominated by a performance). Whilst other films on the list have been sometimes difficult to write about, The Artist was not one of those cases and I deliberately left it to write until the last because I knew I would enjoy doing so (the fact that the list has taken me a lot longer to write than originally planned not withstanding).