It has become one of the most talked about films of 2012, but it could easily have been lifted straight out of 1927. The Artist (in case you didn’t know) is a French produced movie which is silent, and shot entirely in black and white. A stroke of genius or just a cash in on the contemporary appetite for retro? Perhaps somewhere in the middle.
The movie centres on a silent film star who loses everything he stands for when talkies are introduced. Heard this one before? This plot has been a winner for a host of movies harking back to the era of classic cinema, from the tragic fate of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), to the musical Singin’ In The Rain (1952) which shows how some actors managed to survive the change, whilst others failed miserably. In fact, once they’ve throw in the love story that highlights the well-known entertainment process of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, you’ve got yourself a story which feels overly familiar.
Taking us through the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the setting of the film has some striking similarities to the state of the world today, and it is worth remembering that the silent films of Charlie Chaplin thrived through the Great Depression, despite the talkies already being up and running. Just like then, there is something strangely comforting in the simplicity of this film – like all the buttons of sound, colour, 3D, blu ray and high definition are suddenly switched off, and yet the storytelling does not suffer. Under the surface, this story set 80 years ago may have a bit more relevance to our present day climate than we’d imagine.
The star turn of the movie is undoubtedly Uggie, who plays Jack, the dog. This Jack Russell has captured the attention of the world, doing publicity in his own right, showing off all his well trained tricks. He acts as the perfect companion to Jean Valentin, the movie’s main protagonist, and his displays of loyalty and love are enough to break the hearts of even the stoniest of cinema-goers. Many have been calling for him to receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor; but then perhaps the War Horse may want a Best Actor nomination, so it’s really a can of worms not worth opening.
It’s interesting to make such a stripped back film at a time when other movies are trying to make everything bigger and brighter, but it would have been nice to see the movie tackle a more contemporary plot. Just because the movie is silent and in black and white, doesn’t mean it had to be set back when that kind of cinema making was standard. The director could have packed a greater punch if he’d used the genre to depict a modern setting and scenario – I think back to Woody Allen’s black and white masterpiece Manhattan (1979) – it would still have evoked the days of classic cinema, but perhaps could have made it more relevant to modern audiences. I say this because as a 22 year old, I was by far the youngest person at the screening I attended (the average age being about 55). Silent films require a different kind of acting – whether you view it as more real, or a bit farcical – and I’d quite like to see how that might play out in a story set in 2012.
For many of the other movies vying for the Best Picture prize at the Oscars next month, The Artist must feel like something of a cop out. What the director has done is nothing revolutionary – he’s just done it at a strange time. In the eyes of many, this is a movie anyone could have made, and be assured some success from. Nevertheless, it is the sheer novelty of The Artist as it sits among its peers this year, that has made it hot property for the awards season. Whether or not it can win the top prize remains to be seen.
The Artist is at cinemas everywhere now.