I've made it quite public that I had my reservations about The Artist. I wasn't a huge fan of silent films, and I had an irrational dislike of the fact that it's won big at every awards show so far (except the SAG Awards... but I'll come to that in a different post because that's a whole different issue). But I thought since there was so much hype about it that it probably needed to be watched, so off Kathryn and I went to the cinema this weekend to see it. And I am so glad we did.
The plot is one of those ones which is mostly lighthearted when played out on screen, but has some quite serious undertones to it. In Hollywood, 1927, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujarin) is the most sought-after and successful actor out there, until the birth of the talkies puts a stop to his career. Meanwhile, upcoming actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, wife of director Michel Hazanavicius) becomes a household name whilst riding the wave of this new generation of film, but still finds time to provide support for Valentin, who has become financially ruined trying to make his own silent films to compete with the talkies, and consequently sinking into a deep depression.
It's so wonderfully done. Not having lots of experience with silent films, I was unsure as to whether maybe I'd be bored or perhaps unable to follow it with the lack of dialogue (and indeed, colour), but the intertitles are frequent enough to help the audience without appearing so often that it feels like a subtitled film. The two scenes which aren't silent - Valentin's dream scene where everything around him is making noise, yet he cannot speak, and the very last 20 seconds or so of the film - only highlight how wonderful the silent film is. The musical accompaniment is a delight to listen to, reflecting, like a good score should, the emotion and action of the scenes.
The acting is superb. With a silent film, I imagine most actors would tend to exaggerate their physical performances to compensate for the lack of dialogue, but then overdo it and make it look ridiculous. Obviously it's slightly melodramatic because it's all physical performance and facial expressions, but Dujardin and Bejo, as well as the other big-name stars such as James Cromwell, John Goodman and Missi Pyle, don't make it look contrived at all. There's still subtlety about their acting, which from an audience's perspective is a positive because it still seems realistic and therefore still hooks you, whereas if you were constantly looking at someone making grand gestures throughout the film I know I personally would not be able to either take it seriously or even focus on what was actually going on. I also think it's a testament to Dujardin and Bejo for being nominated for a lot of acting awards, considering he only says two words in the whole film and she doesn't speak at all. I think maybe all actors should make a silent film to hone their own acting skills and learn not to rely on a good, wordy script to get them through a film.
If you've read anything about this film, you'll know that the performance of the dog steals the show. I didn't really understand how this could be before I saw it, and kept wondering how an animal could overshadow the human actors - did the other actors lack that much presence or skill that they were outdone by a dog? Well, no, as I've said the actors all give outstanding performances in their own right and should be proud of what they brought to the film, no matter how big their role. But seriously, Uggie the dog is excellent. He got some of the biggest laughs from the audience, and is so talented it makes me feel like I've achieved nothing in my life. I think maybe animals are better suited to silent films since they can't talk anyway, and therefore none of their performance is really lost with the lack of dialogue. That's not to say I'm taking anything away from Uggie, he is splendid and an absolute joy to watch - he's truly one of the most talented actors I've seen in a long time, and the fact he isn't Academy Awards eligable is a crime. It's just nice to know that I'm not the only one who feels this way, as there has been general outcry from the public about his lack of Oscar recognition, but this brings all the more appreciation to his talent, which is a good thing anyway.
I thought before I saw this that Hollywood were getting all dewy-eyed over this because it's nostalgic, much like they did with My Week With Marilyn, I think. I still think this, but I now understand how incredibly charming it is too. Every aspect of the film is exceptional. It's refreshing to see a film that doesn't need to resort to violence, graphic scenes, swearing or any other lower-level techniques to get people's attention and adoration. It's a PG, and it's a real feel-good film, which the Academy don't have a great track record of properly acknowedging, preferring grittier and more challenging material. But really, this is a film that the whole family can see - which usually makes me avoid films, but in this case is a good thing because it can get as wide an audience as possible - and is pretty much flawless.
The one thing I would say, and it's not a criticism of the film really, is don't watch it with other people. Not because it's awkward or embarassing, but because other people can put you off. With a silent film, even with the music, you hear a lot of what's going on around you that you wouldn't necessarily hear otherwise. When people in front of you are rustling a food wrapper loudly, or the old biddies behind you are clucking every two minutes about how glorious it is (which I agree with, but don't voice it during the film!), it can get quite distracting, especially in the scenes where there is no sound at all. One or two other people is fine, as long as you have an agreement not to make noise unless you're laughing/crying/other general reactions to the film.
Actually, another not-so-positive thing I have to say, and again, I'm not taking anything away from the film (well, maybe slightly) is that the novelty of it has probably helped it be as successful as it has been, not just financially but with it's reception. And this makes me wonder whether there can be more like this. As much as I'd love to spend a whole week watching new-age silent films like this one, will any of them do as well as The Artist? Look at Avatar: that was revolutionary in terms of cinema, and so well received, yet 3D films that have followed haven't fared nearly as well, with critics and audiences already turning against it. If they tried to have a wave of silent films, which now I'm thinking they shouldn't, how long would it be before people were complaining about them and longing for "the good old days" of the talkies? Novelty does win people over, but when that novelty wears off, where does it leave the film? Just something to think about.
Verdict: If you haven't seen this yet, you must. It's the most charming film I've seen in a long time, it's absolutely delightful, and adorable, and, as I've proved, will win over even the most skeptical of audiences. Top marks!