Their wonderful camaraderie, one-upmanship and blend have produced the most breathtaking moments on film for decades. But for a generation raised on bombastic blockbusters and quotable franchise, the delicacy and ingenuity of silent films almost seems like a forgotten art, a sampling of the archives.
And that’s why I cannot thank French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius enough for re-acquainting us with the glory and grace of a time when Hollywood hadn’t developed its vocal chords and spoke in a language of charm and gesture. The Artist, though not silent in entirety, devotes itself to this era of black and white classics with such remarkable ardour and genuineness it soon becomes one itself.
Ever since its debut last year at the Cannes [ Images ] Film Festival, The Artist has been showered with superlatives and it’s easy to understand why. Its referential design, taking masterful cues from cinematic greats like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard or Singin’ in the Rain, is its greatest inspiration and much too researched to be dismissed as a mere gimmick. There’s lot to survey in its quiet content — the beauty of nuances, fluidity of expressions, and spontaneity in histrionics, which is articulated magically through Ludovic Bource’s screenplay of a soundtrack.
Set in the late 1920s, it tells the story of a suave, reigning superstar of silent movies, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Valentin is quite aware of his clout but his blithe actions, even when he gets his way with the surly studio honcho (John Goodman makes him human if not likeable), are more winsome than authoritative.
The actor may be too busy to sign his fan mail but doesn’t hesitate from making light of his stardom by doodling a ‘Woof’ around his unflinchingly loyal star dog and mate Jack (played by the utterly adorable Jack Russell terrier Uggie).
It is only when Valentin refuses, fueled by insecurities, to step out of the comfort (silent) zone and work in the talkies that lead to a reversal of fortunes. Like most supercilious luminaries, Valentin too discovers the price of proud proclamations, failed challenges and the heartbreak that accompanies those unwilling to embrace change.
For all its emphasis on quietude, The Artist is as much a romance as it is a tribute to monochrome Hollywood and explaining Valentin’s resistance to technology. His interactions with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an extra turned extraordinaire, are a series of delightfully staged prospects that evolve carefully even when the individual is defined by contrasting circumstances.
His downfall, her rise is succinctly captured in a scene on the staircase. The Artist glistens with several such effective symbolic moments. Like the titles (Tears of Love, Lonely Star, Beauty Spot, Guardian Angel) running in the theatres shrewdly convey the subtext of Valentin and Miller’s emotional state. Or how the Three Wise Monkeys on Valentin’s desk are a constant reminder and endorsement of his aversion for all things sound.
That’s the loveliness of The Artist, it allows you to draw innumerable interpretations without a single attempt to underline the obvious or concealed. Hazanavicius realises the potential of his two main leads and allows their chemistry and charisma to chart its own course.
Dujardin isn’t a conventional dreamboat. Till he smiles, that is. Easily one of the most melting smiles to grace the big screen in ages, his keen, agile body language conveys a vocabulary of vivid expressions. Be it the mathematical precision of his sharp gaze or discerning smirk that both mocks and spellbinds, The Artist is unimaginable without Dujardin. Even in his most unreasonable moments, he’s relatable and an undivided recipient of the viewer’s affections and cheer.
His gorgeous co-star Bejo lends the unrestrained, spirited Peppy Miller a wonderful mix of vivacity, warmth and strength. Together, under Hazanavicius’s supervision, they make magic and music. He directs them to play to the gallery and writes magical scenes to showcase their magnetic, fascinating personalities.And how they oblige.
There’s exquisite clarity, detail, coherence and neatness in his narrative,complimented by deft inter-titles, like browsing through a book of striking paintings explained by a brief blurb, it’s almost effortless. Only it is not. A lucid, lovingly crafted, visually enticing, intimate portrait of individual pride, conflict, empathy and evolution, The Artist is an instant classic.
This article was first published on rediff.com.