I finally got to see Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, his delightful romantic comedy about the end of the transition between the silent and sound era, and it is every bit as good as its reputation. The film’s conceit is that it is shot as a silent film in black-and-white; this sort of thing could easily have become gimmicky, but far from it. Hazanavicius, who previously did several parodies of spy films, which like The Artist starred Jean Dujardin, shows a pitch perfect understanding of the style of late 20s and early 30s Hollywood filmmaking. For example, take the image below of Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin reflected in the mirror, which would easily evoke a feeling of déjà vu to any number of people familiar with the silent era — and it does so without affectation. The same goes for the sound stage sets and costumes, though one policeman’s hat seemed a bit off.
The story revolves around silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who is somewhat modeled after Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (there is a scene where he watches one of his old films, which is Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro ), though we initially see him at the premiere of a film that harks back to Louis Feuillade’s French serial, Fantômas (1913). He has a brief encounter with Peppy Miller (Bejo), an aspiring actress, who goes on to be a major star in talkies, while he’s too much of an artist to make the transition to sound, which sets up a sort of A Star is Born plot, but again not quite. In any case, it’s a remarkable film and is very easy to recommend.
This has been a remarkable year for what used to be called FOOFs (Friends of Old Films), what with the 150th birthday of Georges Méliès being celebrated with the restoration of the color version of his Trip to the Moon and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and The Artist. With the Best Picture Oscar race open to 10 nominees, it is easy to believe that both Hugo and The Artist will be nominated in that category, if only for sentimental value. The more interesting race to watch will be whether or not Jean Dujardin will be considered seriously for a Best Actor nod, as after all he did win in that category at Cannes.