The Artist came out of nowhere last year to take the Cannes Film Festival by storm. Critics fell over themselves singing its praises. It’s easy to see why: a black and white silent movie about the last days of the black and white silent movie era, and a genuinely charming comedy to boot. It’s a story that’s been told before of course, most famously in Singin’ in the Rain. Oddly though, for a film about Hollywood that has been smothered in Oscar buzz, it comes from France.
Jean Dujardin is winning as George Valentin, a 1920s movie star in the mould of Errol Flynn, with a smile wider than the San Andreas Fault and a wife who is rapidly losing interest in him. At his latest premiere he bumps in to Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a fan of Valentin’s and wannabe actress, and pretty quickly star and fan fall in love. But the film industry is about to be turned upside down with the arrival of sound, and Valentin’s star wanes fast. For Peppy however, it’s the fast track to stardom.
Quite apart from anything else, The Artist is the most enjoyable romantic comedy to come along in ages. Dujardin and Bejo make for a terrific couple; they spark off each other repeatedly. The scene where Valentin and Miller begin to fall in love, as the star fluffs take after take on set, is brilliant. The final scene is just a pure delight. Valentin’s dog has also garnered a good deal of praise in certain quarters, and not without reason.
The simple setup might well have been lifted from the silent era itself, but that’s the point: by making a silent comedy in this historical style (complete with 4:3 image), the film demonstrates the timelessness of great cinema – whether with sound or without, colour or black and white, widescreen or square box. It’s also the second film in as many months to openly celebrate the history of film (after Martin Scorsese’s very different Hugo), and to emphatically extol its many pleasures regardless of age. Hurrah for that. If it leads others to discover an era of film all too easily neglected, then its importance will surely grow in the coming years.
If you’ve read all the gushing praise in the press, it’s difficult not to feel a certain level of “Is that it?” during the end credits. It’s a film of simple pleasures, but pleasures they most assuredly are.