Monday, 16 January 2012

'The Artist' Review

In 2007, the Rotterdam Film Festival premiered an Argentine Science-Fiction film, called La Antena. Written and directed by Esteban Sapir, the feature told the story of a town where no one could speak anymore. Instead, everyone had to communicate by mouthing out the words into the air as visual letters. Only La Voz, a singer, can speak, working for the despotic Mr. TV; a man whose control of sound must be thwarted if the city and its denizens wish to speak ever again. Mirroring both German Expressionist cinema and early Russian features such as Aelita, this black and white film was a modest success, packed with plenty of post-modern play with the (dis)connect between sound and vision.

 To say that La Antena – whilst an achievement – is a superior film to Michel Hazanavicius’ critical darling, The Artist, is to be a contrarian for the sake of it (and I do not dig “cool to hate” attitudes – see: The Black Swan, Lost in Translation, The Phantom Menace etc.), but La Antena, against The Artist, nevertheless stands as a reminder of just how powerful good distribution is. As a caveat to what is to come, I wish to champion La Antena for taking an earlier stab at what many are hailing The Artist as so daringly attempting now. The Artist might do a better job of it, but it didn’t do it first. Of course, La Antena was a rather avant-garde piece of fantasy adventure, whilst The Artist, mimicking also the glorious days prior to the talkies, does so by way of Hollywood rather than Murnau or Lang (on the whole, at least), and is as much a celebration of the “Golden Age” of Hollywoodland as it is an ode to a cinematic style long since abandoned. Charmingly buoyant in its reverent approach, Hazanavicius’ feature is an absolute delight to watch, deserving of most – if not all – of the acclaim attributed to it.

 The film’s tale tracks the crossed paths of silent sweetheart George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Hollywood hopeful Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), meeting first at the premiere of George’s Fantomas riff, A Russian Affair, only to find their opposing paths entwined as the era of talkies sets into Hollywood. Together, the two actors’ stories track this major shift in studio output during the late 20s and early 30s, figured in Al Zimmer’s (John Goodman) studio, Kinograph, looking at the bright future of cinematic sound and the cost it had on those indelibly linked to silence. Hazanavicius’ film achieves this through mirroring the style of the very films he pays homage to, and as might be expected, a plethora of cues and quick references to the canon of early cinema abound throughout (it’s interesting to note what forms flattery can take; the didactic approach of Hugo, when compared to the more pronounced imitative aspect of The Artist, reads even more as an essay than it did prior).

 Of course, smug call-backs for the preening cinephile to gloat over do not a good film make, but Dujardin, Bejo and – wait for it - Uggie the dog manage to channel that sense of stardom embedded in those earlier films and elevate the film far beyond the status of a museum piece. The trio are electric, never more so than when onscreen together, and their presence is enough to carry the film through what is a rather lagging march to the inevitable climax. The fact that the Weinstein Company have managed to generate so much PR out of Uggie’s skill is a testament to the dog’s role in making the film so charming, and is in itself fittingly old school (bless him). The whole she-bang is rounded off by Ludovic Bource’s peppy (do-ho-ho-ho) score, perfectly mimicking the likes of Shield and Chaplin.

 It’s hard not to watch The Artist without grinning like a loon throughout, always endearing even in its most flawed, repetitive moments. Quite whether this is the Best Film of 2011 that happened to miss the cut off date is debatable – I think that would be a rather excessive claim – but it nevertheless represents a great start to the cinema of 2012 (even if it is filling that now familiar role of the early year “indie hit”).

The trailer is so Weinstein. Weinstein. Weinstein Weinstein Weinstein. Ok, I'll drop it.