The Artist (2012) – directed by Michel Hazanavicius

The Artist has recently leapt into the spotlight as the front runner for the best picture Oscar. But is it a good film? Before seeing The Artist I knew it was a French film, a melodrama, and that was made in the tradition of the silent films of the 1920s era. Beyond that I knew little, yet somehow I have been very much looking forward to seeing it. Was it simply its novelty that was capturing my interest? This is dangerous territory considering that a good film is so much more than a few simple circus tricks, and I was hoping not to be disappointed.

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist tells the story of the aptly named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a Hollywood star whose fall from the spotlight comes at the demise of the silent film era. He stubbornly refuses to do “talkies” proclaiming his skill as a silent film artist. He is duly replaced with new bright young stars, one of which is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the focus of his amorous attentions.

At its core The Artist is a film about pride with a love story overlaid. When the film’s novelty is stripped back, it is no more than a simple riches to rags story. But its simplicity, I think, is its real genius. Here I was expecting, hoping perhaps, to have a multilayered meaty exposé on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Instead I got a pure story with no irony, sarcasm, or cynicism. It is authentic and aware of what it’s doing yet somehow unaware just enough to keep you slightly unsure of where it is going. Its purity is conveyed wonderfully in the universality of its “silent” language. The viewer does half of the story telling, filling in the lines that they want to hear because they are not forced down their throats by scripted dialogue. It is like a painting, very sensual, and in this instance not a puzzle to decode.

Technically the film is true to the silent era. There are no “we’ll just make this camera movement because we can and the viewer will not notice that they couldn’t do it back then” moments. There was perhaps an unauthentic smoothness of shot born out of modern equipment, but that’s just nitpicking and we are the better off for it. A clever dream sequence (perhaps a nod to Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo) is one of the few times the film branches out, but for the most part it contains itself within the silent genre.

If you go to see this film (and I strongly suggest you do) don’t expect a post-modern cinematic feast. I think I was trying too hard to find depth and meaning in this film that I missed the point. This simply a film born out of the thrill of discovery, a homage to the silent era that simply works … and works because of its simplicity.