Is The Artist the "best" film from the last year, as the Oscars recently decreed? No. No its not. It is a surprise break-out hit from last year, garnering accolades and awards for its cast and writer/director as it played through festivals and limited releases.
By now, surely there are few people (reading this wee blog at least) that don't know about The Artist and the decision made for this film about the silent era in Hollywood to be almost entirely silent itself; as opposed to the classic and, frankly, better film about the transition from silent films to talkies, Singin' in the Rain. The Gene Kelly starring delight was in full colour, with toe-tapping songs, fun musical numbers and a star on the rise.
The Artist though is a black & white silent film about the downfall of a once-great silent era actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Valentin stubbornly refuses to do talkies and spirals further and further into obsolescence and depression. As he is on his way down, the charming young bit-player Peppy Miller (Bernice Berjo), who briefly crossed paths with Valentin is on her way up. She becomes the new toast of the town, captivating the studio bosses and audiences alike. Throughout her ascent she remembers Valentin and goes out of her way to help him in unobtrusive ways: buying up his possessions when they're up for auction, keeping an eye on him in the street. And, as you've probably heard, there is a dog.
The film is somewhat in line with director Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin's previous collaborations, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 11: Lost in Rio. Both of those films were looking back to the aesthetics and style of a previous age of movies; in the case of the OSS 117 films the spy films of the 60's. They are goofy, self-referential, self-effacing and fun films. Dujardin is in similar form in The Artist, his big cheeseball movie-star grin lighting up and blasting through at a million watts.
However, I did begin to tire of Valentin's moping, that carries on past what is necessary. When he's at his absolute lowest, with his apartment and films burned to nothingness Valentin is taken in by Peppy Miller, the one person who still cares about him. She even still has all of things. But his idiotic pride continues, Hazanavicius continuing to have Valentin's foolish pride carry him through Hollywood.
There is a noticeable tension throughout the film; the modern tugging at the classic. The Artist uses the aesthetics but not the grammar of silent filmmaking. That is, the film is silent with characters mouthing their dialogue, with the occasional card informing us to what they're saying, but the film itself is shot in a resolutely modern cinematic style. Hazanavicius seems to show his interest lies more in the aesthetics (or gimmick if you're being cruel) than in veracity.
And, speaking of cruel, there has been a backlash amongst some critics against this surprise awards-gobbler. I come down on neither side. Whereas I believe Hugo more accurately and lovingly captures the silent filmmaking pioneers, The Artist is perfectly fine enough as a film from a filmmaker who set himself and his cast an ambitious goal. The conceit is intriguing, even if the story never fully held me.