The Artist

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

16 May

First Academy Awards, 1920

On this day in 1929, the first Academy Awards presentations were made, at a private dinner hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Louis B Meyer had created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences two years earlier, and later stated that “I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them… that’s why the Academy Award was created.” These were the only Academy Awards not to get radio (later TV) coverage. The awards covered the years 1927 and 1928 and had been announced three months earlier. Best Actor went to Emil Jannings, Best Actress to Janet Gaynor, Outstanding Picture (which would later become Best Picture) to Wings, and Unique Artistic Production to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. By the following year the Unique Artistic Production award had been dropped, as had the notion of the acting awards being for work in general (Jannings got his gong for The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh). In an award that would have serious implications for the industry, Warner Bros picked up an honorary Award for producing The Jazz Singer, the “pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionised the industry.”

The Artist (2011, dir: Michel Hazanavicius)

In 2006 Michel Hazanavicius directed OSS: 117 Cairo, Nest of Spies and in 2007 OSS 117: Lost in Rio, two films which, though they drew on the OSS series of books which predated Ian Fleming’s creation, spoofed the James Bond films of the Sean Connery era. Lots of films had already spoofed Bond, of course, from Matt Helm and Our Man Flint to Austin Powers and Undercover Brother. What made the OSS films different was the sheer attention to detail, and the on-the-nose performance of their star, Jean Dujardin, as the casually sexist, racist, unreconstructed red-blooded spy.

Hazanavicius and Dujardin pulled off the same trick with The Artist, but rather than their film being the sort of thing mentioned in passing by cinephiles to prove that they’ve put in the hours, it became an international sensation, an event movie that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. The working method was the same – get the production design right, get the film stock and camera movements right, get the actors right, then add just a touch of knowingness – a tiny teeny bit, just enough to alert the audience that a genre is being twitted. Satirised would be going too far. We get that nudge in The Artist right near the beginning, when we’re watching Dujardin’s silent film star George Valentin, and the orchestral soundtrack to The Artist lines up with the film that Dujardin is playing in on screen. This sleight of ear is all that’s necessary to make us realise what’s afoot, sophisticated readers of film language that we all are. And once we are in the know we’re treated to a familiar story, about a big film star (Dujardin) who hits the skids and a nobody (Bérénice Bejo) who is on the rise, a love story of missed opportunity, because the two lovers are on separate escalators heading in opposing directions.

Dujardin plays George Valentin as somewhere between Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, all teeth, winks and impulsive gestures; Bejo’s Peppy Miller is a cross of Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo, sexy, vital, mysterious. Watched simply at the level of story it works, in the way A Star Is Born always works (even in the Streisand version), even though it’s a film which had plenty of people in plenty of cinemas walking out in a huff before even giving it a chance – “I’m not paying good money for a silent film” one wise shopper was heard harrumphing as she flounced out in Liverpool. But it isn’t just a silent film. In fact it’s not a silent film at all; it’s just playing with the idea. There is a soundtrack throughout; there’s even a line of dialogue spoken at one point.

If you’re up for this sort of thing and want to watch at the level of “I am paying good money for a silent film” then you will probably wince when someone in The Artist is given the middle finger, and wonder who on earth ever punched the air in “yay” fashion back in the era of Laurel and Hardy. But for the most part it’s remarkable – silent films from Keaton to Von Stroheim have been studied and worked into the mix. There are fat legged nurses and kindly doctors, the extras are so good that they look like they’ve been spliced in from old silent movies. The camera wobbles as it dollies in for a close-up. And it’s got an incredibly cute dog in it, who plays dead and hides its face with its paw. There’s even a tap-dancing finale, for God’s sake. Irresistible.

Why Watch?

  • A meta silent movie
  • Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo
  • A support cast including John Goodman, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell
  • Laurence Bennett’s remarkable production design

The Artist – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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