Who’s that girl?’ Read the headlines splashed on screen in The Artist as Hollywood ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) out-smiles screen idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) at the premiere of his latest film.
We might have directed a similar query at Michel Hazanavicius’ homage to silent cinema when it crept into Cannes a year ago, a late competition entry from a director of two decent but modest spy spoofs (the OSS 117 movies).
Yet just as Peppy soars from mystery girl to screen-stealer, so The Artist was the stealthy charmer that slipped under the rope in 2011. It seemed like an Oscar shoo-in after Golden Globe and BAFTA triumphs, sure, but surprise success was otherwise one of this underdog’s abundant pleasures. Which might explain why silence has shrouded one aspect of its awards sweep.
Where is the backlash? After all, gripes of a “royalist white-wash” nature followed the success of 2010’s chattier The King’s Speech. The Artist majors in perkiness, recalling another Frenchman’s more divisive hit, Amélie, and tempting dsmissal as “an arthouse film for people who don’t do arthouse films”.
That it was backed by Weinsteins, the faux-indie heavies in Peter Biskind’s industry exposé Down And Dirty Pictures, ought to exacerbate that gripe.
And it spawned about 100 “Silence is golden” headlines too many. You won’t find a backlash, though, because Hazanavicius’ cine-love letter doesn’t betray the cynicism that might turn the above reasons into grounds for grumbling.
When James Cromwell’s chauffeur Clifton warns a down-on-his- luck Valentin to drop his pride and embrace Peppy because she’s a good ’un, he could be talking about The Artist: drop your guard and it really does look as guilelessly artful as it seems to be.
Sure, the story might be a bit too simple for its own good. Narcissistic but sweetly childlike hunk Valentin and peppy Peppy fall in love, only for her star to soar in the new era of talkies and his to fall as he bullishly refuses to vocalise.
At base it’s a comic romance riding a broad moral curve (pride comes before a fall); the smile slapped all over its kisser tells us it won’t end badly while background movie posters (Lonely Star, Guardian Angel) offer overobvious pointers for anyone who can’t tell where it’s going.
Yet Hazanavicius peppers its path with riches, and not just because he plays it as a silent movie. The 1:33 aspect ratio, 22 FPS shooting speed and swoon’n’boom Ludovic Bource score prove he knows his silent onions. But other directors – Finnish hangdog hero Aki Kaurismäki, Winnipeg wonder Guy Maddin – have made more radical revisits to the silents.
Cleverly, though, Hazanavicius uses silence as a theme, from George’s manly marital reserve (“We have to talk, George...”) to the mutt who can’t speak (“If only he could talk...”) yet manages to stress a sense of urgency anyway.
Sound is smartly deployed in the sequences accompanying Valentin’s fear of the talkies, where the scrape of a glass heightens an expressionist nightmare like something out of The Twilight Zone.
The cast act likewise, providing perfect homages while adding something extra, fresh and alive. As George’s wife, Penelope Ann Miller gives a masterclass in life-as-show as she emerges grimacing from behind a curtain to smile for her fans; James Cromwell matches his performance as Babe’s Farmer Hoggett for taciturn tenderness. Yet there’s no swiping the leads’ glory.
Dujardin gives the perfect measure of a man whose life is all show while nailing the vulnerability that comes when he loses that crutch. Bejo pops with pep and delivers a standout moment when she embraces Valentin’s suit, a lovely mime of understated dexterity and desire.
Nods and ends
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert circa 1926’s haunt the George/Peppy The Artist. References rustled up include Metropolis, 7th Heaven, The Mark Of Zorro, The Man, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Singin’ In The Rain, In A Lonely Place, Sunset Blvd and The Lost Weekend.
The Artist might seem light next Blvd’s stinging satire of Hollywood, as when a deliriously drunk George sees tiny tribesmen attacking him after he’s made a junk jungle adventure. Yet charm and grace are Hazanavicius’ keynotes: he’s hewn his film from love, not anger.
You could say he’s mounted a critique of how Hollywood is forever chasing the next new thing, a point well made by the fact that he conjures more memorable images than anything released in 3D recently (bar Hugo, whose warm cinephilia makes it a perfect companion piece). But it’s the sheer exuberance of the thing that sticks with you, from Peppy’s screen-packing smile to the flurries of the final dance.
The Artist doesn’t mourn for what movies have lost: it reminds us that cinema can still come from the last place we expect and surprise us with pleasure.