Friday, 2 December 2011

'The Artist' review:

Widely tipped to win big at next year's Oscars, 'The Artist' is a French (mostly) silent movie starring the charismatic Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a star of silent era Hollywood whose career suffers after the introduction of sound. To a large extent it's a retread of 'Singing in the Rain', with large helpings of 'Sunset Boulevard' and 'A Star is Born', as one star's fall from the limelight coincides with another's meteoric rise. Here it's the energetic young Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, who becomes the It girl and darling of the early talkies - sparking conflict and romance with her ageing idol and sometime mentor.

Director Michel Hazanavicius has made a sweet movie which only ever aspires to be charming and, for the most part, succeeds. The humour is gentle to a fault, the stars are elegant, gifted physical comedians and the early Hollywood setting is recreated with no shortage of affection. Adding to the good time feeling are cameos from John Goodman as a brash studio mogul, James Cromwell as a loyal limo driver, Malcolm McDowell as a cantankerous old man and Missi Pyle as a shrill actress. There are dance routines, moments of passion and also an adorable little dog. It's a nostalgic crowd-pleaser and, particularly in the first act, entirely joyful and full of laughs - amusing sight gags and clever misdirection jokes. It's about twenty minutes too long, losing its way in a bloated second act, but it's fun nevertheless.

That the film is so unapologetically winsome and uncynical in its reverence for Hollywood, whilst being so superficially high-brow - not only is it silent, but black and white and shot in 4:3 aspect ratio - will be in its favour come Academy Award time. It'll also be helped by that veteran Oscar campaigning powerhouse Harvey Weinstein whose company is distributing the film. If it combines these qualities with the expected box office success there will simply be no way of stopping its rise. I bring this up because Oscar success will (perhaps unfairly) change the way many critics - myself included - feel about the movie in the long-run. Simply put: the film could go from being a modest and delightful curiosity to an over-praised monster. Think 'The Hurt Locker'.

It could become one of those movies people who actually don't really like film bring up at parties as evidence of their great taste and quiet devotion to cinephilia - just like 'The Shawshank Redemption'. Worse still, the Academy giving the Best Picture award to a film like this would be a self-serving gesture on the part of its members, who can use this silent, black and white, French movie as evidence of their integrity. To the watching world it will look like Oscar has stuck his gold-plated neck out for an obscure, boldly different little art film, in spite of the fact that it's, in content and form and by definition, conservative. Ultimately it's every bit as cosy and middle class as last year's champion: 'The King's Speech'.

Yet for a year the American film industry may be allowed to pretend that the Oscar isn't a celebration of great financial success at all, but a simple celebration of art and, like Roberto Benigni before him, Michel Hazanavicius can stand on stage and endear himself to a vast television audience with his adorable European accent, become a Hollywood darling and then quietly disappear back home.

'The Artist' is, truly, a lovely little film. In its present state, free from the inevitable reassessment brought on by such things as Oscar glory, it's one of the year's most charming and eminently watchable movies. But not one of its best. It isn't technically ground-breaking, thematically challenging or formally experimental enough to be considered one of the year's most significant films and, though its derivative nature is central to its charm, it's still derivative. Yet whatever trajectory its critical fortunes take the film's infectious good nature and lightness of touch won't fail to raise a smile.

'The Artist' opens in the UK on December 30th and has been rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

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