Saturday, 7 January 2012

Review: The Artist

As you might have noticed, unless you're living under a rock on the dark side of the moon, Michel Hazanavicius has been wowing critics, and now the average viewer too, with his new silent film The Artist. Set in the late twenties/early thirties, The Artist is an endearing dramatic comedy in the classic style of the golden age of silent film. It explores the effect of synchronised sound films, or 'talkies' (the first all talking picture being 1927's The Jazz Singer) on silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and up-and-coming young dancer/actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George is rendered obselete by the onset of this new medium, while Peppy (who is also George's number one fan) is in her element.

Acting is a key aspect of any film, but in silent film, where there are no voices or background noises to lean on, performance was even more crucial. Exaggerated facial expressions and gestures were the order of the day, and the cast of The Artist do not disappoint. The pairing of Dujardin and Bejo works especially well; the romantic friendship shared by the two leads seals the film together (plus the unforgettable John Goodman as the Director never fails to draw a laugh). But the real star of The Artist is of course Jack the dog (whose real name, apparently, is Uggie). An incredibly cute, well-trained and Chaplin-esque animal, Jack ultimately steals the show, appearing in all of his master George's films, and even saving him from a housefire.

The film looks spectacular, instantly bringing back the true meaning of the phrase 'Silver Screen'; however, even though this is a silent film, it is Hazanavicius' use of sound which is truly incredible. The film has a wonderful score (some of which is either very reminiscent, or lifted straight out, of Hitchcock's Vertigo) but the real standout scene as far as sound is concerned is George's 'synchronised sound nightmare', in which suddenly everything he does has an accompanying noise, whether that be putting down a glass on his desk or knocking over a chair. His confusion and fear grow greater and greater until he runs outside to see a group of dancing girls cackling at him ever more loudly, and then finally a falling feather which, when it hits the ground, makes the sound of a bomb.

The Artist is a joyful celebration of the early days of cinema, and a film that everyone, not just film geeks, will enjoy. Watching a modern film in a modern cinema is generally an exercise in sitting as still and as silently as possible until the credits roll, when you will sneak furtively out of the screen as though you've just been doing something unsavoury. It is impossible not to get caught up in the retro audience reaction which is generated by The Artist. Laughing, clapping and poking your neighbour in the ribs are not only allowed; they are practically compulsory. You'll find yourself skipping out of the cinema with aching cheeks due to the almost permanent grin which has been glued to your face for the last two hours (although the film does have its darker moments).

If you think you might be put off by the silent aspect of the film, you won't be; in reality, silent films are very far from being silent. They are how cinema was originally constructed, and for quite some time the only way it was possible to construct it (although it is true that synchronised sound, like James Cameron's Avatar, was conceived long before we had the technology to implement it). The Artist is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment and is now on UK release.

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