Film: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

Visual storytelling is the key for Oscars favourite The Artist, a deeply affecting tale about the perils of pride and the redemptive power of love

James Piper

Behind its obvious charm, The Artist is a deeply affecting tale about the perils of pride and the redemptive power of love – all said without a single word being spoken.

That a black and white silent film has won two Golden Globes and is expected to storm the Oscars is both remarkable and incredibly refreshing. Amidst the suffocating information overload of the modern world, it is immensely enjoyable to see a film celebrating the subtle and exquisite art of visual storytelling.

George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is the hero of the piece; a dashing silent movie star whose palpable charisma (and penciled moustache) seems to transcend the need for dialogue. With a single look to the camera he can command his audience. However, as sound starts to creep into cinema in the form of ‘talkies’, Valentin’s silent magnetism fast becomes obsolete and his vain and stubborn refusal to adapt his act proves to be our hero’s tragic flaw.

At the height of his fame, Valentin encounters the impossibly pretty Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo. After being clumsily knocked past the police line outside a film premiere, Peppy falls into George’s path and lands him a cheeky peck on the cheek – the first spark in what unexpectedly grows into a very moving love story. As Peppy goes on to pursue a film career, happily embracing the advent of sound in cinema, the very man who facilitates her ascension collapses under uncharacteristic self-doubt. Yet for all his self-absorption, George’s apparent affection for Peppy ensures that we vouch for his cause throughout, hoping for the reconciliation that his love for her might bring.

The Artist is a beautiful film. Its perfectly balanced treatment of universal themes is played out through a series of incredibly well executed gestures, routines and motifs. At one point George catches his reflection in a shop window, his head positioned above an expensive suit on display, and with a wistful half-smile communicates a lifetime of yearning and shattered dreams. Another scene shows George and Peppy exchanging farewells, a long-shot depicting him descending mournfully down the staircase as she strolls upwards to the heights of fame and success. These moments are made all the more poignant by the film’s ravishing and romantic score composed by Ludovic Bource.

More than just a clever and intellectualized pastiche, The Artist draws on the techniques of the past in order to support its wonderful story. Although ridden with references to films throughout history, no prior knowledge of the silent movie era is assumed or indeed necessary. This is a genuinely touching fable about fame and success, hubris and love.

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