In the last few years, we have had to bid goodbye to many familiar things, as technology marches on inexorably. The baby boomers are discovering rheumatism and we are writing bedtime stories about paper books, DVDs and a truly free internet for our grandchildren. So it is no wonder that 2011 was heavily nostalgic on the movie front: Midnight in Paris with its cotton-gathering hero, The Descendents with its protagonist who labours under the weight of his ancestors' deeds and the expectations of his descendents, The Tree of Life with its narrator who remembers the horror and innocence of childhood and Hugo with its touching tribute to Georges Méliès. The Artist went one step further with its wonderfully satirical throwback to the silent film era.
How many film aficionados have you met, who don't list at least five silent films among their favourite films? And how many times have you told them that the only reason silent movies existed was because they hadn't found a way to stick sound to the picture, not because it was a superior story-telling device. The moment they found the technology to do so, they abandoned silent films and ushered in one of the most glorious and exuberant eras in film: musicals. Why would you want to watch people mugging at the camera when you can watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fire up the screen instead? Well, Michel Hazanavicius presents a strong case for the former, having had over a century's worth of cinematic cautionary tales warn and inspire him. Is it not said that hindsight is 20/20? So too was The Artist with its beautifully arranged scenes and simple plot that always threatens but never actually falls into the trap of rose-tinting the past. Perhaps the original silent films were constrained in their imagination and plot due to lack of technology and because the art was very new, but after watching this film, my interest in silent films has been piqued. A well-executed and well-intentioned film, Hazanavicius reminds us that sound often obscures our ability to see.
Jean Dujardin plays a famous silent film star at his peak. He is entranced by a spunky, ambitious woman, Bérénice Bejo who manages to worm her way into Hollywood and hitches her wagon to the rising star of the talkies. Dujardin on the other hand, becomes a has-been and doesn't even realize it.
Simplicity has been called the crowning reward of art; the ultimate sophistication. If you take away dialogue and noise which tend to dissemble and even take away the over-the-top gesticulations associated with silent films, what you are left with are little gestures, longing glances and lip quivers which tell you the whole story. After so many bloated films with enormous budgets, lavish sets and costumes and self-indulgent dialogue, The Artist with its spartan aesthetic was satiating. There is a scene when Dujardin, the famous star of a film and Bejo, a set extra are filming a scene in a room full of dancers. We giggle when Dujardin, is so captivated by Bejo's beauty, that he absent-mindedly forgets his role and then we sigh when they forget that the camera is rolling and dance together unmindful of the rest of the world. Or a scene when Bejo, sitting in her plush luxury car secretly purchases everything put up for auction by a tired, angry and destitute Dujardin and manages to convey love, concern and guilt without having to say word.
There were a number of hat-tips to Singin' in the Rain, a film about the introduction of talking films and one of the cheekiest and most enjoyable digs at studio bosses, starlets and Hollywood in general. But I was also reminded of another film about silent films: the darker and tragic Sunset Boulevard, a critique of Hollywood's flagrant use-and-throw attitude with its people. Dujardin's fading celebrity more closely mimicked Norma Desmond's dangerous self-obsession and inability to flow with the current than Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood who, despite being uncomfortable with the new technology, admits defeat when he sees the overwhelming response to talkies. Singin' in the Rain is a happy story because Don swallows his pride and takes diction lessons. He accepts criticism of his silent film style of acting and instead concentrates on his strengths: song and dance. Norma Desmond failed, not because she was old but because she thought she was more important than the art itself. While this film could have captured Dujardin's catharsis better, Dujardin does a fantastic job with his character.
Truth be told, I was not swept away by the film when I watched it. It was good, it did everything right but was it enough, I wondered. But weeks after watching it, I find myself dwelling on scenes, some of which were composed like paintings or I find myself thinking of Dujardin's range as an actor or even some particularly clever title cards. Some would say that my growing regard for the film may be related to the growing number of awards it has been racking up and because it is a very likely winner in the Best Director, Actor and Picture categories this Oscar season, but that's nonsense. This year, my heart and inconsequential vote are with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. But then, simplicity really ought to be a more popular virtue in Hollywood and I hope that it is encouraged by suitably rewarding The Artist with golden naked men.