It takes a brave and skilled individual to successfully pull off a black and white, silent film in 2011 but director Michel Hazanavicius has done it with aplomb. A household name in France due to the spy caper series OSS 117, Hazanavicius has reteamed with the star of those films Jean Dujardin to create this playful, charming film.
Shot entirely in black and white and in the 1.33 aspect ratio, The Artist uses the conceit of the silent film to tell the story of George Valentin (Dujardin), preening star of numerous swashbuckling adventure films. At the premiere of his latest film, Valentin has a chance meeting with pretty young actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who poses for a photo op that ends up splashed across the front page of all the Hollywood papers. A small role in Valentin’s new movie follows and the pair dance around each other, literally at one point, as their mutual attraction grows more and more.
The film moves on a couple of years, just as Kinograph studios boss Al Zimmer is preparing to ditch silent films in favour of ‘talkies’. Valentin is unimpressed and leaves the studio to embark on his self-financed silent project. Valentin’s film is a complete bomb and he is left broke, just at the time Peppy Miller’s first talkie propels her to superstardom.
Looking like a young Sean Connery and channelling the some of the silent stars of the past (such as Douglas Fairbanks), Dujardin gives a slick, charming and funny performance. He has great screen presence and a wonderfully expressive face that is essential to selling the material. Playing the role mostly broad, Dujardin also has a light enough touch to successfully negotiate the more dramatic turns the film takes towards the end. Hazanavicius’ wife Bejo also nails the performance style of the silent era and gives a winning performance as Peppy Miller.
There has been a lot of hype around the film and it has already scooped a number of awards with many more to come no doubt. It’s easy for a film that winds up the front runner for big awards to be seen only in the context of awards season and that can lead to some disdain. Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech come to mind from recent years.
However, like those films to a certain extent, The Artist should not be dismissed as just crowd pleasing awards bait that only gets attention for it’s retro style. It is a fantastic achievement from Hazanavicius and the rest of his team, including cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, production designer Laurence Bennett and composer Ludovic Bource who together craft a charming, moving and funny film that harkens back to the silent era while also having fun with it.