IT IS SILENT, it is shot in black and white, and its lead players are both unknowns. Yet this glorious ode to 1920s Hollywood is now a frontrunner for the best picture Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, having wowed the world’s media at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Perhaps it is due to the gluttony of remakes, reboots, sequels and gimmicks that the magic of cinema is now being celebrated with such unashamed joy. Just as Martin Scorsese did so gloriously with 3D and that other best-picture favourite, HUGO, so Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius takes such gestures to a new, all-time high.
His lead man, Jean Dujardin – known to some from the spoof romp, OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES – is in his element as silent star George Valentin, whose dashing image (and preening and posturing before the camera) has made him a massive silent-film star. But following a chance meeting with a fawning fan and would-be actress named Peppy Miller (a similarly splendid Berenice Bejo), Valentin’s career is soon to run aground.
Before long, the advent of sound is on the way – he foolishly dismisses the looming revolution in film as a fad – and Peppy swiftly comes to eclipse his star. Only his loyal hound, it seems, can save him from the depths of darkness as his career collapses.
Dujardin – who has had to take English lessons, following the film’s runaway success – bounces off Bejo like a dream: together, they are luminous as the on-screen would-be lovers who dance toe to toe, eyes locked with intense joy. Their pairing is an inspired piece of casting. Substantial support from heavyweights Goodman, Cromwell and McDowell round matters off nicely.
This fictionalized account of Hollywood’s filmic history is from a French perspective – another, highly unusual scenario – and it’s impossible not to be swept up by the film’s sense of fun. The rinky-dink score that accompanies the silent action, complete with title cards, wipes, fades et al, is infectious beyond belief. Even the now infamous use of VERTIGO’s love theme at the close is a joy (to all except, perhaps, Hitchcock’s star Kim Novak, who recently voiced disdain).
Film fans may also spot the familiarity of the story itself, since it bears more than a passing resemblance to A STAR IS BORN. Yet where that classic – in all its three different versions – could feel overblown, the tone of this soundless romp cannot be faulted.
It’s rare to find such an unusual film not only gaining wide exposure – remember, this is a French feature, shot in LA – but also consuming the industry it’s set up to salute. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein famously snapped the film up at Cannes against his brother’s advice. Ever since, industry types have talked about little else.
Will the Academy be swept up by THE ARTIST? It’s hard to believe otherwise. Its appeal lies in its innate ability of tapping into that sense of joy that lies within us all. It is irresistibly charming. It is unmissable.
Critical Rating: 10/10.
THE ARTIST is in cinemas from Thursday.
First published in The Sun-Herald.