james debate
james debate

Sunday 8 January 2012

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Written by Michel Hazanavicius
Produced by Thomas Langmann
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman
Running time 100 minutes

the artist dujardin

So maybe this hasn't been the most exciting year for cinema in recent memory. Maybe there's no King's Speech or Avatar, but when February rolls around the Academy will still have plenty of traditional Oscar fare to contend with like War Horse, the Descendants and the Help.

Yet it isn't any of these that is currently considered the frontrunner for the most coveted of film awards, that honor belongs to a french silent movie shot in black and white, starring and directed by complete unknowns. It might just be one of the strangest and most unexpected awards campaigns of all time, but the Artist has captured the zeitgeist of critics and movie patrons the world over, and heads into 2012 as favorite for the big finish.

Naturally I was curious as to how such a thing could be possible, and made sure to book tickets for opening night, which just happened to be my birthday. I'm pleased to say that I can now understand why such an oddball of a movie has elicited so positive a reaction, this film easily surpassed my expectations.

First of all: yes this film is (almost entirely) silent, with scenes backed by a continuous score, rarely any diegetic sound, and dialogue displayed sparingly with intertitles. The Artist is a love story for sure, but the real meat of the plot lies with the tormented silent movie star whose dumb pride and stubborn ways render him unable to cope with the changing times in Hollywood. The Artist is a tender homage to the early days of cinema, and particularly the period of transition between silent movies and "talkies", but any fear that this aesthetic is merely some self-indulgent gimmick is quashed within the first few minutes.

As hard as it may be to believe, I was glued to the screen for the entire film, absorbed into the moment in a way that few recent films have managed. The Artist is uproariously funny, perfectly acted (not least of all by a scene-stealing terrier), at times heartrending, and always sublimely stylish to look at.

It turns out there is an art to conveying story and emotion using the minimum dialogue. While we like to think of such a style as some archaic relic from the silent era they still form some of cinema's most eloquent and affecting moments, from 2001 to Cast Away to Wall-E. There's a surprising amount that can be said without words. The Artist uses that effect better than any of these films to the extent that, far from a gimmick, this heavily stylised tone actually adds to the content of the film. It also doesn't hurt that the score which accompanies almost every second of the film is so excellent.

So is it really a contender for best picture in February? Most definitely. The Artist is one of those films which grows even fonder in memory; certain scenes are so brilliantly clever and well executed that they border on cinematic perfection. The spellbinding and utterly committed best-actor-at-Cannes-winning performance of Jean Dujardin is also almost certain to earn a nomination, though halting the Clooney buzz that seems to be building will be a tall order, no matter how deserving.

Yet at the same time the Artist is a film that in hindsight might look strangely lightweight next to other winners of the coveted best picture. This is not a "deep" movie, it doesn't tell any groundbreaking story that hasn't been done before, and on the grand scheme of things it doesn't have anything pivotal to say. The Artist is simply an exceptionally well made encapsulation of Hollywood and everything that people love about movies. It captures the devoted torment and the unbridled joy of an artform, and it does so in a way that is simply absorbing for the moviegoers.

Skeptical? I was too, but give this a go and the irresistible charm will suck you in and win you over.

Extraordinarily clever filmmaking
Tour de force performances
Daring and ultimately vindicated stylism

That skeptical patrons may not give this a shot

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