"The Artist" (2011)

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The Artist (2011)
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Running time: 100 minutes

You know, I think I’m just terrible at picking the Best Picture Oscar winners. As I’ve said before, I make a point to go see the film that takes away Best Picture at the Academy Awards regardless of whether it looks like my type of film; and for the last couple of years I never seem to have seen the winning film prior to the ceremony. What’s up with that? I always see most of the films that are nominated and it’s always the one I haven’t seen that wins! But I digress, as here I am, some four/five months after it’s release (and almost two months after the Oscars!), reviewing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2011: The Artist.

Barely Still Showing this week (I had to hunt around for a cinema to still be showing the film!) is The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius. The big grab for this film is that it is in fact a silent film, much like the films being made about a century ago. The colour scheme is black and white, as well as the only soundtrack being the musical score with all important dialogue being displayed as text slides. The Artist is also self reflexive in its storyline as the film is about a silent film star in the late 1920s named George Valentin who’s status in Hollywood is being challenged by the introduction of “talkies” and the rise of a new talking star Peppy Miller. The more Peppy succeeds, the further George falls, but not only has she stolen his career but also his heart.

The Artist cleaned up at the Oscars this past February, taking home Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design. And I must say that the award for the soundtrack is hugely deserved. The soundtrack is amazing, capturing the mood of every scene and moment with excellent precision while at the same time keeping everything fresh and interesting as it is the main source of audio for the entire story. And let’s face it, the music of the 1920s was just amazing to begin with! The costuming was quite excellent I must admit, but nothing we haven’t already seen in every other film set in the 1920s. Jean Dujadin’s performance as George Valentin was definitely inspired. He demonstrated such specificity in his gestures and expressions and it conveyed so much character and depth. In fact, the entire cast nailed this aspect of a silent film performance!

If I had to describe The Artist in a single word it would be “touching”. All the aspects of the romance between Peppy and George were very touching, as well as how it slowly destroyed George’s marriage. George and his faithful dog are a pair of rascals for cinema history. My personal favourite was the relationship between George and his loyal driver Clifton (James Cromwell), it was enough to almost bring a tear to my eye. But all of this got me thinking: “why is it touching?” And I went through all the movies I could think of that I found “touching” and I suddenly stumbled upon the answer: they are almost all silent! Outside of well written television shows that have hours and hours of screen time for me to bond with the characters, most of the films that I have been touched by have been due to use of silence. The big ones that stand out for me are the Pixar films WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009). The sweet innocence of WALL-E and his childish want to simply hold the hand of the only other robot he’s ever met was just beautiful in the silent (wordless morelike) opening forty-five minutes of WALL-E. And everyone is aware of the silent opening section of Up, using a perfect blend of cutesie cartoonishness and crushing realism to make a strong man cry in the first ten minutes! And in The Artist, the same thing is at play. Approximately eighty percent of human communication is through body language, so is the reason that silent films are so effective is because we’ve removed the remaining twenty percent that we tend to focus on? Is it because when we remove the words that we wake up to previously subliminal messages of the human body? I suppose you can have cliched or contrived dialogue, but physical interaction can always be truthful.

And while I really enjoyed The Artist, here I must write the enevitable “but”…

I wouldn’t have chosen it for Best Picture. Yes, it was very original and unique, and yes it is an excellent film. But my pick for the best film of 2011 would still have to be Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. The reason being because while The Artist touched my heart by nailing that eighty percent of human communication, The Descendants did it using the whole hundred. The moments of stillness and silence in The Descendants were matched, if not exceeded, by the vocal interactions between characters.

So once again the Academy and I don’t see eye to eye. Ah well, there’s always next year!

See you next time!

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