The Artist is one of the best movies I think I have ever seen.
Granted, that is always a risky thing to say since I will no sooner declare that and another immensely creative, well-acted, beautifully shot and realised movie will come along and I will be in love all over again. But I think it’s going to take a while to surpass the sheer delight of this film.
Set in the late 1920s, and into the 1930s when the Talkies are about to revolutionise cinema, and the Great Depression is cutting a swathe of destruction through rich and poor alike, The Artist has much to say about pride and downfalls, the old guard and the new, and the ceaseless march of time that spares few people.
But even though it has some highfaluting philosophical ground to cover, and cover well, it is at heart the story of two people in love, who want each other, need each other, and end up saving each other. It could be trivialising this wonderful film to say it’s about love, true love, because that would make it sound like a cheap knockoff romantic comedy, but it is the love story between George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) that anchors this story, and gives it its emotional core.
The story starts with what is known in the movies as a “meet cute”. George Valentin is at the height if his popularity, the star of silent movies, charismatic, funny, a dashing leading man that everyone adores. He plays to this adoration every chance he gets and it’s at the premiere of his latest movie, A Russian Affair, that he meets Peppy Miller who falls out of the crowd when trying to retrieve her purse and into the path of a shocked, then bemused, then, when he realises that everyone is waiting expectantly for his move so they know how to react, his laughter.
There is an instant spark between the two, and though neither really acts on it in any tangible way, their subsequent interactions – including a memorable one when she is an extra on his next movie, A German Affair (see Hollywood was just as unimaginative then!), and he uncharacteristically forgets what he should be doing next – speak of a deep, unshakeable connection that lasts through the years, and ultimately saves them both.
But on their way to mutual salvation, Peppy becomes a massive star in the new Talkies movies, while George slides into penniless oblivion, rejecting Talkies as a fad, and thrown out by how voice (with whom he is also unable to communicate properly). Ignored by the fickle masses but not forgotten by the people that truly matter – Peppy and his driver, Clifton (James Cromwell) – George is too proud to reach out for help. He is left alone in his small apartment, pawning his goods, drinking alcohol and smoking like there is no tomorrow, and then when it all becomes too much, and he is alone watching his movies one night, a sad lonely audience of one, he breaks down, screaming at his image on screen that he is a loser, and setting fire to all his films.
Save one, The German Affair, which he is found clutching when he rescued from the fire. His rescue is thanks to the other great star of the film, his dog, Uggie, who acts in George’s movies, and is his constant faithful companion, and who alerts a policemen to George’s plight. It takes a while but George finally realises that Uggie, and Clifton, and Peppy have all stayed close to him even though he had descended into a morass of self pity, and have all played a part in saving him from his pride-filled self.
The Artist is emotionally rich, beautifully shot (the use of silent era credits and the diffused light that made them look slightly fuzzy is spot on), exquisitely acted, and a visual delight. I was so absorbed by the movie that the rest of the cinema faded into black, and the only world that mattered was this totally silent one before me.
Silent it may have been, but The Artist has a louder, more pure creative voice than any other movie you’re likely to see for some time.