Dir. Michel Hazanavicius. France. 2011.

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Reviewing Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), a reworking of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), I wrote that “Far From Heaven is very deliberately made in the style of that (1950s) cinema, with scenes linked by dissolves instead of cuts, a lush score (by Elmer Bernstein) instead of rock music, larger-than-life colour photography (by Ed Lachman), and (what to me was quite a jolt) the words THE END appearing on the screen as the camera soars up into the trees”.  Offhand I cannot think of another film deliberately made in the style of the time it was set, apart from Michel Hazanavicius’ deliriously enjoyable new film The Artist (2011), which must be one of the most purely original films ever made, and which in my view (writing several weeks before the Oscars) should sweep most of the main prizes, including one for “best dog“ if there was such an award.

Set over several years from 1927, it is basically a cross between Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, with numerous filmic references ranging from Metropolis to Sunset Boulevard to Citizen Kane to Vertigo.  Starring French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, it centers on George Valentin, a silent-movie superstar who comes crashing to the ground when talking pictures come in and he is eclipsed by Peppy Miller (taking the Debbie Reynolds role from Singin‘ in the Rain).  There is eventually a happy ending, and we discover just why George would never have made it in 1930s Hollywood.

The originality of the film arises from the fact that it is (basically) silent with intertitles, in sparkling black-and-white, and shot in the old Academy aspect ratio.  There is continuous soundtrack music (replacing a live orchestra), and as the film progresses sound gradually emerges, though not the speaking voice until the very end.  I have subsequently read (though did not spot it at the time) that it was shot in 22 frames per second, instead of 24, giving the effect of a slight speeding-up as in the old silent movies.

For me, 2011 has been a vintage year for cinema, with two utterly different films (The Artist and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life) demolishing the claims we get from time to time, usually from the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, that “cinema is dead”.  Malick’s film divided both critics and audiences, but The Artist cannot fail to be enjoyed by anybody.  This was proved by the spontaneous applause which broke out at the end of the public screening I attended; common at festivals but very rare otherwise.

The aforementioned dog, by the way, was played by Uggie. 

Alan Pavelin

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