One would have thought that silent movies would have no place in modern cinema, with audiences used to widescreen images, 7.1 surround sound, and dazzling special effects. The Artist not only proves that it can stand toe-to-toe with modern “talkies”, but also surpasses the vast majority of them.
The Artist is the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie actor at the peak of his career. Women want him, and men want to be like him. Married to a beautiful, but stern, blonde, and with his faithful dog at his side, he feels absolutely invincible. The Artist also follows the rise of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Peppy is an aspiring actress who starts to fall for George after she accidentally bumps into him (literally) on the red carpet.
The Artist is on one level about a man’s journey as an actor in Hollywood, with all of it’s many ups and downs. While this type of story has been done before, it’s how The Artist does it with a completely fresh take that makes it so brilliant. The most obvious aspect that makes The Artist stand out is that it’s a silent movie, and uses the many characteristics of this genre, such as speech cards and black and white visuals, with incredible effect. The Artist also asks the question “Is there a place for silent movies in modern cinema?” both within the world of the movie, and to modern cinema audiences.
The movie is written masterfully: scenes from movies within The Artist reflect emotional moments occurring outside of them, a nightmare sequence in the movie ingeniously shows George’s greatest fear, and dramatic or humourous “dialogue” is used sparingly to emphasise emotional impact.
The cinematography is deceptively simple, but is also incredibly effective. Whether the camera is slightly off angle, or placed in just the right position to show a reflection in a mirror or shop window, an great deal of thought has gone into every shot.
The soundtrack for a movie is excellent, and each piece is composed with great detail to reflect the emotions of the actors on screen. The style of the soundtrack is based on silent movies of the time, relying on an orchestra to bring the various blues, jazz, and swing songs to life.
And of course, there’s the acting. While most other movies can get away with less than stellar acting and rely on dialogue to fill in some of the emotional key points, The Artist doesn’t have this luxury. The music does help set the mood, but the majority of the communication is portrayed through body language, which of course places a greater burden on the actor to deliver. Both Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo bear this burden brilliantly and deliver amazing performances. These two seem to have a natural chemistry which is clearly visible on screen. The performances of the supporting characters, whether it’s James Cromwell, as the butler Clifton, or Missi Pyle, as the actress Constance, are also well delivered. The best performance from a human supporting character comes from John Goodman, who plays the role of the studio head. He manages to stand as an equal with Jean and Bérénice, even when he has to share the scene with both of them and their brilliance. The best performance from a four legged supporting character could only go to Uggie, George’s ever faithful canine companion. Uggie also manages to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with George in the scenes they share, which is quite an accomplishment considering he’s only couple of feet tall!
There are four extras on The Artist DVD which include a Making of, Q&A, locations and blooper reel. The Making of is entitled “The Making of An American Romance” includes commentary by the actors, director and a Hollywood film historian. It briefly covers all aspects of the production including characters, locations, influences, and story development.
The Bottom Line
Considering that The Artist is a silent film, one would expect it to appeal exclusively to film buffs and fans of art house cinema. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. Without a doubt, people who have a wide and extensive knowledge of movies will get more out of The Artist than those who don’t. However, The Artist also has enough going on in terms of humor, romance and drama that anyone who likes those genres will be able to enjoy the film.
About the writer
Rowan Govender, a writer and artist who is more commonly known by his pen name Rowango, graduated from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal with an Honors degree in Media in 2006. He relocated to Cape Town in 2007 to pursue his interest in writing and film. He is currently employed part time in the Technical Writing industry, while he pursues personal creative projects.