An old-timey comic melodrama about the pitfalls of artistic pride and the power of romantic redemption, Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” was greeted with enthusiasm in Cannes upon first screening, whilst earning the Best Actor Award for Jean Dujardin, it’s leading male Star.
It has since been critically acclaimed with various awards including during the latest Golden Globes in Hollywood prompting many to bet on it’s triumph at the upcoming Oscars.
Shot entirely in Hollywood, at the legendary Warner Bros Studios, and in black and white, the film depicts the film industry at the end of the silent-movie era. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a popular film star whose career comes to an abrupt end with the advent of thetalkies in 1926/27. It is partly inspired by the real life and career of John Gilbert whose love story with Greta Garbo was not merely limited to their passionate onscreen romance in Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil.
Somehow Hazanavicius film seems to prolong our movie buff’s curiosity with the roaring twenties in the same way that Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech dealt with the political impact and consequences of radio as a new powerful medium during that same time span.
Melodrama Not Pure Comedy
Hazanavicius deliberately avoided making a spoof à la Mel Brooks of the silent era. Instead the film is built like a melodrama which operates brilliantly on a poetic level whilst borrowing scenes and ideas from black-and-white films including those of the late “Metropolis” creator Fritz Lang.
A movie buff himself, several of Hazanavicius previous films also appear as tributes to different cinema genres including two spy parodies: OSS 117, le Caire nid d’espions, and OSS 117, Rio ne répond plusalso starring both Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. In both films Dujardin’s character respectively picks up mimics from Sean Connery’s James Bond Roles and Paul Newman in John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man.
During the film’s Press conference at Cannes, both leading actors of The Artist explained how closely they had studied the stars of the silent era for inspiration.
Most actors often didn’t need to have a script, they could convey so much through body language and this appears clearly in Dujardin’s performance, executing the role with the melodramatic behavior and grand gestures of the early film greats.
Raised in France but born in Argentina, Berenice Béjo (who in real life shares the life of director Hazanavicius) seeked inspiration from silent era heroines like Ann Shirely and Mary Duncan, known for their minimalist acting, in F.W. Murnau’s 1930 classic “City Girl”. “Without doing much, they managed to convey a lot of emotion” say’s Béjo. Going into the project, she said, “I was petrified. I wondered if I could rise to the challenge… but strangely enough, not having to talk gave ustremendous freedom. We could overplay, for instance.”
Dujardin agreed: “Sometimes there’s too much talking in films. Silence is a wonderful exercise.”
They share the screen with American stars James Cromwell (L.A Confidential, The Queen), who plays the role of Valentin’s faithful butler Clifton as well as John Goodman (Barton Fink, The Flintstones), cast as the ruthless studio boss, whose character is a combination of Louis B. Meyer and David O. Selznick, two of Hollywood’s most successful yet tyrannical Tycoons.
A special credit should also be given to a Jack Russell terrier, who triggers off some of the greatest laughs in the film and which earned the canine star an unofficial Palme Dog award.
Returning to the Basics of Visual Grammar in Filmmaking
Like his cast, Hazanavicius watched a lot of silent films — Charlie Chaplin’s among them — in order to grasp the secrets of telling a tale without spoken words.
He soon realised that ironic comedy wouldn’t cut it. “A silent film imposes a certain experience on the viewer,” he explained. “A melodrama or a love story fits best with the (silent) format.”
“It’s purely visual. It’s pure cinema. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it,” said the 44-year-old film-maker. Composer and longtime collaborator Ludovic Bource created a score with a rich orchestral soundtrack.
Tension and emotion come through the old-fashioned crafts of larger-than-life acting and a full orchestral score, and Hazanavicius revels in playing with the absence of sound.
He employs title cards and only once does he introduce sound in the main body of the movie when Valentin has a nightmare. In the buildup to the denouement, an intertitle appears with the word: “BANG!”, which surprised even the director in triggering the expected reaction of gasp from his audience during the screen tests.
“I wanted the tale to be purely visual,” said Hazanavicius, “And indeed filming this was was the very essence behind the works of some of the greatest directors in cinema.”
France’s Love and Hate Relationship with America
The Artist highlights France’s ambiguous fascination with Hollywood, which often and unfairly has been reduced to a “Love and Hate” Relationship with America.
This is not surprising given the century old rivalry between both countries each claiming paternity over the genesis of the motion picture industry (i.e.: Lumière Bros vs Edison) as well as in the opposing cultural views expressed towards the film medium.
However one of the paradoxes of The Artist lies in the fact that it actually celebrates French Cinephilia as much as France’s enduring love for America.
Indeed as much as movies are traditionally seen by Americans as a merely a tool aimed at pure entertainment, the French on the other hand have often boasted about elevating it into an artform which ironically at times have actually had the opposite result.
Even if this French tendency of celebrating the movie director as an auteur in the same league as a writer or a painter may at times appear as pompous it has nevertheless equally influenced some of Hollywood greats. Both John Cassavetes as much as Robert Redford’s (who initially ambitioned ta career as a painter in Paris during his Beatnik years) commendable efforts in promoting independent films at Sundance owe much to their mutual fascination with the French New Wave Cinema.
The dichotomy between European Cinema’s deemed artistic ambitions and Hollywood’s obsession with commercial success is best illustrated in Jean Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris (aka The Contempt ) in a climatic scene which confronts the legendary director Fritz Lang in a cameo role and Jack Palance cast as the tyrannical american Producer obssessed with the commercial turnover of his movie.
Ironically Le Mépris was actually commissioned to Godard by Hollywood studios andwas to become the French New Wave’s biggest commercial success ever …
Contrary to popular belief the young directors ofthe France’s New Wave were indeed fascinated by Hollywood. Many started off as critics for Les Cahiers Du Cinéma . Godard’s admiration for Fritz Lang, Truffaut’s for Hitchcock or Chabrol’s for Orson Welles (truly a Renaissance maverick in his own right yet often snubbed by Hollywood) are of public knowledge.
This mutual admiration also finds an explanation in the fact that many of these Hollywood pioneers were of European heritage: Michael Curtiz, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin, Eric Von Stroheim to name a few. A tradition which continued into the talkies and later on during the technicolor years with such talents as Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, David Niven, Stewart Granger, Ingrid Bergman, Claudette Colbert, or Jean Renoir who achieved in America, the envied stardom and or critical accclaim, which was denied to them back home.
Hollywood’s power of attraction operated like a trampoline in helping them launch their often isolated european careers to International stardom and fortune.
As portrayed by Jean Dujardin in The Artist , the protagonist George Valentin embodies this quintessential exotic breed of hollywood’s ambitious stars from Europe. One whose private life, inner turmoils and often exact nationality remains a mystery to the audience and is eclipsed by a magnetic onscreen charisma wrapped in celluloïd.
In an age used to violent 3-D blockbusters, the box office success and critical acclaim for The Artist comes as a delightful surprise particularly at a time when there is little to rejoice from in the news.
Although The Artist is a French film (produced by French Thomas Langmann, Canal Plus) it is nevertheless distributed in the US by Hollywood’s heavy-hitting Weinstein brothers, who are riding high on the success of last year’s Oscar bid: “The King’s Speech”. One benefit is that It will not run in competition with Iran’s equally commendable Oscar candidate: Asghar Farhadi’s The Separation deemed a favorite in the Best foreign film category.
Therefore winning top honours for The Artist at the Oscars should definitively seal France’s Genuine Love Letter to America.
The Same should be true for Iran’s The Separation.