Friday, March 9, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

The Artist has been this years "little movie that could" - a french-made, black and white silent movie that accelerated through the awards season to win 5 Oscars in what felt, by Oscar-night, a crushing inevitability. It was so critically lauded, so acclaimed, that before the opening credits even start to roll there is a burden of expectation upon it to deliver, and the worry is always that that it won't manage that, because the bar has been set for it so high. But we went to see it anyway, and this is what we thought. 

Before we get into the film itself, I find the meta-story of The Artist fascinating. Every year, Hollywood rolls out the usual "Oscar Fodder"; films made pretty much for the awards season, worthy films, about stuff, often loss-making vanity projects where actors can prove their acting ability or chops as a serious, thoughtful performer before going back to make the next big box office romcom, action movie or whatever. This year we got stuff like The Descendants and The Iron Lady and Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close (of whatever its called) all displaying varying degrees of quality vs cynicism when it comes to getting at those little statues. And it's been interesting, as the awards season played through, to see The Artist attacked and campaigned against as if it was cut from the same sort of cloth as these "from the ground up" awards whores when plainly it isn't, regardless of it's qualities as a film. 

From the get-go, The Artist is an odd film. It is in an old-school screen ratio, it's shot entirely in Black and White, it has all the credits at the front, like a 30s film, and with a couple of well-realised exceptions is completely silent. Now when I say silent, I of course mean "fully scored" and the sound design of the film is in fact one of the most brilliant things about it, not just the score but the use of "proper" silence at key moments. I've often said that one of my favorite things about the original Star Wars trilogy is how John Williams score allows Darth Vader to fully "emote" despite wearing a full face mask, the music driving the audiences emotional response, and The Artist does the same thing, with the added benefit of the actors performance and the music replacing their voice. 

This is a film with a lot of heart - and a fair bit of darkness. After all, its about the end of one era and the dawn of another, and it's central character is a star of one who seemingly cannot make the transition into the other. There is a theme of loss, and sadness that runs through the film for all it's broad physical comedy and occasional bursts of feelgood joie de vivre. That it encompasses both distinct moods is a credit to the craft on display. 

Craft is a key word here. This isn't just a film that has copied the styling of the silent era, but a film that has taken the time to understand it. There are countless shots that feel like they've come from the silent era - a wonderful scene between it's two leads on a giant stairway stands out - and an understanding that that lighting and  sets and costumes for a black and white film need to be designed differently to their modern counterparts. There is more than a hint of obsession in this production, and it's rather wonderful. 

The whole film is a tribute to a creative era that we easily forget in the rush to find the new - and a reminder that great films are made not by the latest technology at a filmmakers disposal but by how those tools are deployed. The Artist succeeds not as simple pastiche of that era, but as a modern film made in a historical style that succeeds by the standards of today, not simply the rose-tined lens of nostalgia. It's clever, it's warm, and it's funny, and I loved every minute of it.