Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius, France, Belgium 2011

Just a few weeks ago I wrote elsewhere on this blog that I couldn't think of any film off hand that I'd been as much looking forward to seeing as The Artist! First of all, there's all the hype surrounding this film, not to mention the slew of awards and nominations The Artist has received. Next, and more importantly, there's the film's sujet, revolving as it does around a crucial moment in American film history, and one which continues to preoccupy and fascinate me - Hollywood at the transition from silent film to talkies.

Now, having just seen The Artist at long last, I am happy to report that my expectations were met, although to be honest, I'm not even sure I'm able to say what these expectations were or consisted of ... a lesson in film history? (which it isn't), a love story without sound? (which it isn't, either, strictly speaking), a lamento about all that was lost when the pictures started talking (which it is isn't, either, but that's how I felt when leaving the cinema).

Summed up in one of the most famous lines from Hollywood history, the effect The Artist has on the viewer is best described as "they didn't need words - they had faces!". Norma, you were absolutely right, is what I felt like shouting right into the crowd behind me as I was watching the film.

That's how riveted I was!

True, the film's narrative can be told in one or two sentences and as already mentioned, has hardly anything new to say about the subject of silent film or its transition to sound. However, it's not necessarily the story that counts (most of which have been told already, anyway, and many of them several times over) - more often than not it is a case of how the story is told. And this precisely is what makes The Artist such a pleasure to watch. It's the effortless and well-nigh imperceptible switch of perspectives in the film's opening sequence; it's the expert use of music - and sound! - throughout the film; it's how Hazanavicius uses his knowledge of Hollywood history without ever coming across as patronising; and it's of course the actors, most notably Jean Dujardin, who epitomises a 1920s movie star down to the last detail, including the fact that he's foreign-born (in the film as well as of course, in real life) as were Valentino and Emil Jannings, which also, in the film's very last scene, aptly explains why Dujardin's character disappeared from the screen when silent film went out.

And yes, the film's not entirely free of a certain nostalgia but it never drifts into the maudlin or the sentimental. If anything, it's more an homage to silent film than it is a nostalgic look back, let alone a lamento.

What does come as a real surprise to me, though, is the success The Artist enjoys, not just in the US and in France, but the world over. For a silent movie to be this popular in times like these, obsessed with ever new technical inventions and innovations, is rather unusual, to put it mildly.

But then again, maybe it isn't so unusual, after all. For looking more closely at recent US releases what strikes me is, that quite a few of them are indeed looking back - nostalgically or otherwise (Hugo, War Horse, etc.) - as if yearning for a rather more innocent time when life seemed easier, less riddled by the woes, problems, disasters and social inequalities which now hold us firmly in their grip and which we can't seem to find any appropriate answers for.

Seen this way, the success of The Artist may be less surprising, ending as it does, at the cusp of the Great Depression.