Wednesday 11 January 2012

Film Review: The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011)

Watching Guy Maddin’s great silent-influenced fantasias I’ve sometimes wondered to myself why more directors aren’t returning to the language of early cinema, in all its vital expressiveness, as Maddin does so dynamically in his work. Well, with The Artist (2011), the French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has done just that, producing a heartfelt homage to silent cinema that is (slightly gallingly) receiving much more widespread kudos and acclaim than Maddin’s work has done to date. Indeed, word-of-mouth on The Artist has been strong ever since its premiere at Cannes last year, and, helped along by a never-to-be-underestimated Weinstein marketing push, the movie seems to be winning friends and admirers all over the place. It’s not hard to see why, for Hazanavicius’s movie - less quirky and obsession-packed and more obviously audience-friendly than Maddin’s offerings - is a most delightful thing: clever, funny, touching and as irresistible as its leading man and lady’s (oft-displayed) winning smiles.

Opening in Hollywoodland 1927, The Artist focuses on the contrasting fortunes of two performers: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). When we meet them George is an adored silent film actor, basking in the glow of success, while Peppy is an aspiring actress who, bumping into George at a premiere, is helped by him into minor screen roles. But, with the coming of sound, the pair’s fortunes are reversed, with Peppy’s star going into the ascendant while George, unable and unwilling to adapt to the new technology, fades.

Best known for his spy spoofs, Hazanavicius opts for a fonder approach here, and, as such, the movie that The Artist most recalls in some ways is Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2003): it’s a throwback that favours affection and respect for its sources over po-mo knowingness and one that wins its way through to a surprising amount of emotion as it progresses. It helps that, as in Haynes’s movie, the cast seem exactly right for the archetypes they’re incarnating. Dujardin and Bejo couldn’t be bettered, and there’s well-judged support from John Goodman’s studio boss to James Cromwell’s butler, while in Uggie the movie boasts the most scene-stealing pooch to grace the screen in many a year. Offering the considerable pleasures of spot-the-reference, the movie flows beautifully, providing a myriad of pleasures sequence-by-sequence: George's "sound" nightmare and a delicious coat-rack love scene win out as my two favourite moments.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, The Artist’s popularity has resulted in a backlash mounting in some quarters. I’ve seen the film dismissed as “a whiff of a movie”; a work that lacks substance and bite and  that doesn’t play fair with the histories of the stars it evokes, while issue has been taken with elements from the cutesy canine to the crowd-pleasing feel-good finale. Such complaints seem a tad  churlish, the reaction of cineastes irritated that the picture is engaging a mass audience. The Artist is a confection and crowd-pleaser, to be sure (indeed it’s about the pleasures of being crowd-pleasing), but it’s to Hazanavicius’s credit that the movie doesn’t feel calculated. It may disappoint those who, to borrow Margaret Atwood’s analogy, persist in considering “excellent pastry [to be] a facile creation when compared with raw meat on skewers.” But the rest of us will find it hard not to succumb to the charm and delight on offer in this cinephile’s wet dream.


  1. Nice review, and one of the few that actually makes me want to see the film.

  2. Well, I'm delighted to hear that! :) Like most people I thought it was a charmer. But I guess a backlash was kind of inevitable.

  3. You are right that the director is stealing Guy Maddins thunder, who has been at it for years. As you say, The Artist is just bringing silent film back to the mainstream, and making it more accessible, at least for this film, anyway.
    I don’t think The Artist is the best picture of the year, but it definitely is charming, and the acting is top-notch. Jean looks like he was born to play George Valentin!

    Although, I didn’t like the curious message (and title) of The Artist in my oscar predictions post yesterday, more on that over at my blog