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Review: The Artist

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell
Directed By: Michel Hazanavicius

NB: We recommend you only read this review after having seen the film.

The Artist paints a comfortingly nostalgic view of 1920s Hollywood, beginning with the conveyor belt production of silent films in their final years and then slamming head first into a wall of sound. Mark Bridges’ irresistibly pretty and readable costumes chronicle an era that, as The Artist implies, perhaps only ever existed in cinema.

There are some actual 1920s era outfits and dresses seen in the film, though most vintage stock was too delicate for the leads.

This is a movie that celebrates movies. It is also near silent. Echoing the idea that narrative can be understood without dialogue and diegetic sound, The Artist is effectively decipherable by costume. The rise of adorably cheeky aspiring actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) can be charted by her clothes; the early days of autograph hunting in drop waist rayon dresses to box office success in fur coats and stoles.

Peppy’s journey contrasts with the downfall of silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), from tailcoat and white bow tie to collarless shirt and grubby suit. In one vital scene, George catches his reflection in a tailor’s shop window, full evening attire mirrored beneath his head. Having pawned his own dress suit for cash, he can only gaze at the broken man staring desperately back at him. In the context of the wider narrative this reflects the social change brought on by the persistence of America’s Great Depression. Much of this story is about parallels.

Both Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are superb, performing their near wordless roles with absolute conviction.

The Artist is not a novelty, nor is it imitation. If it must be considered homage then it is homage to talkies just as much as silent film. The advent of sound is posited as something wonderful. It forces George to overcome his ego and pride eventually giving him a new career. Silence tells this tale, but sound is the reward. What better way to usher in the new era that would change cinema forever than by the sound of tapping feet?

Dark times in The Artist are certainly the trickiest to sustain repeatedly. There may be one negative turning point too many before George’s triumphant return in the aforementioned Fred and Ginger-inspired conclusion. Yet, there is no happiness without despair. The Artist works hard to ensure you depart its company with only one possible expression on your face. If there is a more joyous film this year, we haven’t seen it.

The Artist was released in the U.S. on 23rd November and will be released in the UK on 6th January.

© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.