Every year, there is one film that gets an inordinate amount of attention, and this year that film is The Artist, which is the heavy favorite to win Best Picture, as well as Best Cinematography, and no one will be surprised if it wins even more than that. Director Michel Hazanavicius has enjoyed great success the past few years updating the OSS 117 films with actor Jean Dujardin and his wife Berenice Bejo. Now, he has decided to take on a different time period in film making, and he brings with him all the tools he has honed and sharpened making OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio. Those films look exactly like their true life 1960’s counterparts.
Here, the difference is Hazanavicius is touching on a subject very dear to Hollywood’s heart, the silent film, and the “Golden Era” of Hollywood filmmaking. The Artist is the tragic tale of a silent movie star (Jean Dujardin) who can’t move on with the advent of talking pictures, and puts everything he has into a final silent epic that he directs himself. When it bombs and he literally goes up in flames, the only person left to help him is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a woman he inadvertently made a Hollywood star for the talkies. What he views as an assault on his pride is really just pure affection for his style, even if it is out of date.
I see what the Academy loves about this film. It’s a love letter to everything that is old Hollywood, from the classic top of the world to down and out and back again story, to the flawless film making style that lends the film its fully authentic look. It could be shown side-by-side with many films from the period (late 20’s/early 30’s) and many people would probably be fooled into thinking this was the genuine while some from the era were the fake. Quite possibly the best set design and costume use in a motion picture, The Artist isn’t there to fool you into thinking this is a classic silent film, this is indeed a classic silent film.
The fact that it is a silent film (with sound playing an antagonistic role throughout the film) made in the modern era is what garners it attention. Film snobs are offended that critics like the black and white photography, but anyone that knows cinematography knows what a feat this film really is. Technically, the film is superb in every aspect, but this is the type of film that has to be technically superb to be authentic, and that is Hazanavicius’ greatest triumph here, I believe. Actor Jean Dujardin has the thankless role of playing a silent star in a world full of talking heads, and he plays the multi-layered, tongue-in-cheek Hollywood playboy George Valentin with great joy0.
The entire film is populated with well known actors, most of them in small character roles. I think many people think the intent of this film is to prove that a silent film can be done in the modern climate, but I believe it is to point out that no matter what trend sweeps through Hollywood, and there have been many, from the talkie to the 3-D D-Box experience , a good story and a well acted film is what draws people, the rest is just gimmickry. Don’t be fooled, however, the film revels in the gimmickry of the silent film, from the dance numbers to the blocking and editing, The Artist hits all the notes it intends to.
However, with all of that said, I still don’t think it’s the best film of the year, or even a contender for the title. It’s simply a fun film, but in Hollywood, anything self referential enough for the Academy to understand (it must be spoon-fed after diaper changings) is often going to be far too watered down to be anything too challenging content-wise. And while in recent years some darker films have won the big awards (No Country For Old Men and The Departed, namely) it seems this year they’ll do what they did last year, stick with the safe, friendly film, if only to maintain the image of your friendly Hollywood dream factory.