The Artist

 

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell PG cert, limited release, 100 mins

This silent, black-and-white French film is a most unlikely Hollywood hit, writes TARA BRADY

IT’S 1927 and life couldn’t be peachier for Hollywood heartthrob George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Audiences thrill to his swashbuckling screen adventures and flock to see the comic antics of George and his constant canine companion, Dog. The ladies can hardly keep hold of their pocketbooks when the star turns out for the glittering premiere of his latest blockbuster, A Russian Affair.

Adoring fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) can scarcely believe her luck when, pocketbook dropped, George stops to retrieve her purse from the red carpet throng. It’s enough to get Peppy on the cover of Varietyand to kick- start a will-they-won’t-they-won’t they-please romance between George and Hollywood’s latest celébutante.

Peppy, it soon transpires, has a star quality all of her own and is merely a montage away from top billing on the poster. Her ascendancy, alas, mirrors George’s sad professional decline. How he laughed when movie mogul John Goodman played him that reel with sound. Who knew that Talkies had a future?

Deserted by his steely, distant wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and entirely outmoded at the pictures, George needs a devilishly clever plan if he’s to turn his dwindling fortunes around. And Peppy might just be the dame to oblige.

By now you’ve probably heard all about Michel Hazanavicius’s award-winning anachronism. The Artist, a silent, black and white movie, delivered intertitles, peep-show fade and all, was the best-reviewed film of 2011 and is a favourite in the Oscar race.

Regular patrons of Planet Arthouse will know that the film’s many pre-season awards and glowing notices can’t be attributed to gimmickry. Plenty of contemporary directors have flirted with silent pictures – Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki has done one, the great Canadian film-maker Guy Maddin can hardly work any other way – but none has attracted the tide of positive notices that this comedy has.

The film’s broad release into popcorn emporia indicates The Artistis flukier still; even vaguely outré projects like westerns and musicals rarely crack the multiplex any more. This one may come with nachos.

It deserves as much. Far from being limited by its technological constraints, Hazanavicius’s tribute to the silent era plays around with long-lost grammar and delights in physical performance. Tone changes, too, become a whole lot easier with witty intertitles and, before long, one can’t help but remember Peter Falk’s grandiloquent, all-encompassing introduction to The Princess Bride.

At heart, it’s a swooning valentine to primitive, anarchic early cinema. Arriving hot on the heels of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, The Artistrevisits an era when film was something grander than a play with close-ups and something more inspiring than spectacle. Both projects locate the medium as a historic and genetic offshoot of magic.

Movie buffs and globetrotters may recognise the Orpheum Theater and the Bradbury Building, but the fabulous, authentic location scouting only adds to the mythology. Whatever it says on the signpost, The Artistlives and works in Tinseltown, La La Land, right under the Hollywoodland hoarding.

The fiction, ultimately, is the thing. The Artist, in the best possible sense, is more of a movie than a film. It’s played for laughs and tears; it switches from action to tenderness; it’s got a really funny dog.

Dujardin channels Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Clark Gable but, in his own right, he’s charming enough to make George Clooney look like something stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Bejo is equally captivating company.

Together, they’re a blast with just a hint of Gallic romantic ennui. Well, what did you expect from a silent, black-and-white French film?