Saturday 14 January 2012

The Artist (2012) - Michel Hazanavicius


The Artist is a film that proves the power of cinema.

It's the sort of cliched phrase that will be used a lot when discussing this film.  But it's also 100% accurate.

As the lights fade and the film begins, it's like entering a time portal, the audience transported to the 1920s.  Hazanavicius's film goes beyond pastiche, fully embodying the essence of pre-war Hollywood.  Cinema is distilled into its original primary components - visuals and music - with magnificent effect.

The story will be familiar to anyone who's seen Singin' In The Rain, set in a pivotal moment of cinematic historyGeorge Valentin (Dujardin) is at the height of his career as a silent movie star, but with the dawn of 'talkies' his stardom is revoked in favour of Peppy Miller (Bejo), a young dancer.  Ironically, the modern viewer experiences the reverse, from talky to silence, as we are plunged into a monochromatic time capsule, experiencing cinema literally from the position of a 1920s cinema-goer.

The plot, however, though relevant to the film in terms of historical context, is not important.  By removing speech, it allows the viewer to focus instead on the craftsmanship of Hazanavicius's work, the composition of each shot and its relationship to the music - suitable for a film about making films.  The title refers as much to the film's director as it does to the protagonist, who has exquisitely crafted the mise en scene using old cinematic techniques, with subtle nods to classic movies and delightful touches not immediately apparent.  He has successfully captured the romance of 1920s Hollywood, which is even more surprising coming from a French director.  The music, too, is exceptionally well used, combining romantic strings and jazz pieces to adjust to the changing mood.  The climactic scene especially owes much to Hitchcock and Hermann in its conjunction of music and visuals. 

Each frame is brimming with charm, owing predominantly to the central performance by Jean Dujardin.  His portrayal of Valentin perfectly embodies old fashioned bravado in an amalgamation of classic male stars: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Clark Gable especially.  It's also a performance full of wonderful humour, but without resorting to obvious Chaplin-esque slapstick.  Uggie the dog, meanwhile, is his perfect counterpart, whilst Berenice Bejo's Peppy Miller exudes youthful beauty. 

The most interesting element of the film, however, is the unique and paradoxical position of the viewer.  The film opens with a film-within-a-film scenario - the film audience mirrored by the viewer; our amusement at seeing a silent film for the first time in a modern age mirrored by their joy of seeing a movie at all.  A dream sequence part way through is particularly arresting - Valentin suddenly hearing the sound effects of the film is as surreal for him as for the viewer.  The ending, then, totally confounds viewer expectations.  As the camera pans out to reveal another film-within-a-film scenario, the simple sound of the actors breathing (then talking) sounds completely alien, breaking the illusion of the film in a cinematic equivalent of the fourth wall.  It is the clever implementation of sound, therefore, that blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality - a surreal, abnormal world without sound becomes the norm in a bizarre aural paradox.

In this day and age of increasingly realistic CGI and special effects, it is refreshing to see a film that strips cinema to its bare bones, but tells a far more emotive story in the process.  Moreover, the time, effort and charm that went into creating the film and its performances positively oozes from the screen.  In the process, Hazanavicius has proven he is a true artist of cinema.