|The artist. And his owner.|
Everything in Silent Movie Land seems to happen more solidly - walking out of a room, off a stage; winking, whistling, weeping; everything has a kind of physical significance that we rarely get in "talkies." "Mugging," as new talkie star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) dismissively puts it when she's being interviewed in The Artist about the death of silent stars. But then she doesn't mean it, as she later admits. Silent films have their own artistry, depth and power. The metamorphosis that came with The Jazz Singer gave us something - but it also lost us a simple pleasure.
The plot of The Artist is straightforward. Peppy (and boy is that an apt name) is an ingénue seeking fame; her trajectory is onwards and upwards. On the way she meets someone coming in the other direction - George Valentin, a silent film star, and the artist of the title, (played by Jean Dujardin, whose looks make him seem like every matinée idol rolled into a big matinée idol package.) He plays men in masks and top hats; dashing heroes who flee villains in motor cars and biplanes, and always get the girl. And he has a funny dog, too.
When talkies arrive, Valentin refuses to join in, saying they'll never work; his career is ruined faster than you can say (or, rather, mug) "I told you so." Peppy, meanwhile, reaches the dizzy heights of sonic fame. She can talk! And act! America swoons at her slippered feet. There is a very touching moment when Valentin goes to see her latest blockbuster, which has elbowed his own effort into oblivion - it mimics a scene right at the beginning, where Peppy watches her idol, Valentin, and dreams of glory to come. It does cast a slight shadow over the whole film, though - one cannot help but wonder what will happen to Peppy when the next bit of "fresh meat" comes along.
The actors put in sterling performances: both have immensely mobile, expressive faces. Both have sinuous, slinky movements, whether dancing or even just walking. Peppy has two lovely "trademarks" - a whistle and a wink, which render her pretty face at once vulnerable and strong. There are some innovative touches to the cinematography as well - Valentin, drunk and depressed, pours his drink onto his reflection; more weirdly, he hallucinates a tiny version of himself which then proceeds to attack him with a whole load of men wielding spears; and more frighteningly, when he dreams that he's actually in a talkie.
The narrative arc is predictable, but then that doesn't seem to matter, as the charisma of the stars makes up for it. There was, I thought, one slight problem - there is a hint, at the end, as to why Valentin might have been so anti-talkie, in one of the film's few moments of sound. I won't give it away, but it did seem to me marginally unbelievable that an actor as keen on fame as Valentin wouldn't try to get himself into new technologies just because of one attribute. But hey ho. The film more than makes up for that: for instance, there is a priceless scene where Valentin's increasingly estranged wife yells at him (and when I say "Yell", you know what I mean) "We need to talk! Why won't you talk?"
The Artist is a delightful piece of cinematic froth; an intelligent, witty and pleasing rejoinder to the manic jet-setting and incomprehensibility of such films as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Whether there will be any more silent films remains to be seen; but with its simple tale of love, loss and redemption, it will please the hearts of many. (And don't forget the dog, either.) Now, if you see a man walking down the street holding up cardboard signs and mugging furiously, then it's probably me, unless it's someone on day release. Do feel free to join me in a foxtrot, if you like.