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New Release Review - The Artist

Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell

Despite being black and white, silent and French, "The Artist" could be one of the most accessible movies to come from outside the Hollywood system in quite a while.
Like Godard and Truffaut, Hazanavicius is one of those French directors who is obsessed with American cinema, and like the movie brat generation of the seventies contemporary cinema holds little interest for him. His previous two movies, also starring the uber-charismatic Dujardin, were pitch perfect homages to the sixties spy movie, kind of like "Austin Powers" with the toilet humour replaced by painstakingly accurate cinematography and set design. Here he chooses silent cinema to chronicle the uneasy transition of a movie star into the era of talkies.
When I first saw the trailer a couple of months ago I was immediately interested. In the blandest age in cinema history it's all too easy to catch the attention of a movie geek, just give us black and white in a 1:33 frame and we're with you. This may explain why so many critics are proclaiming this a masterpiece and pleading for Oscar recognition, after all most critics are geeks. While it's certainly hugely enjoyable,this is no masterpiece. Had it been made at the time of its setting it would be a forgotten film, occasionally turning up on cable TV at unsociable hours of the morning, and TV Guides would describe it as "frothy fun". It's comparable to 1995's "Babe", the sort of movie that finds a mass audience simply because it's just too damn nice a movie for anyone to dislike. The difference is that "Babe" had to work hard to earn critical respect, it didn't have the headstart of reminding critics of their favorite movie era. Were "The Artist" to tell it's story in colour, widescreen and without dialogue it's unlikely it would be appearing on cinema screens outside France and I guarantee American critics wouldn't be lauding it so much. For the first half hour I was sitting with a grin on my face but then I began to realise it wasn't so much the film that was moving me as much as the gesture towards my cinematic taste buds. I'm certainly not going to say this is a case of the Emperor being naked, but his smalls are certainly on display.
Of course, all this is unfair on Hazanavicius, he just wanted to make a fun homage to a certain type of film, and for the most part succeeds with distinction. Apart from the nostalgia, there's a lot to like about "The Artist". It's a simple story told well and it's always refreshing to see a film-maker who actually loves film. There's a great scene which recalls Hitchcock's transition to talkies, "Blackmail", a nightmare sequence which is the only time we hear sound effects until the movie's climax. The cinematography is stunning, yet unlike the black and white of a Spielberg or Scorsese film, it doesn't call undue attention to itself. Dujardin is fantastic as the mustachioed lead as is the beautiful Argentine actress Berenice Bejo. They have the kind of classical faces that disappeared from screens with the arrival of Brando and Dean, faces that would be considered too handsome for character parts yet not Anglo-Saxon enough for lead roles. The pacing rushes along like too few modern movies do, its 100 minutes feel closer to 70.
It does unfortunately commit what for me is a cardinal sin, stealing music from other movies. Most of it is obscure enough to overlook but at a key scene towards the end we hear the unmistakable strings of Bernard Herrmann's "Vertigo" score. The context of the scene renders it akin to using the "Star Wars" theme in a low budget sci-fi movie. This soured my experience a little but the average film-goer won't be bothered.
The best compliment I can give "The Artist" is that it has the potential to be a good gateway movie; if you want to get your partner or your kids interested in classic cinema this could be a very good tool.
7/10