The Artist review: No words, no colour… and no flaws

Silence is golden: The Artist has no words, no colour… and no flaws

The Artist (PG)

Verdict: Film of the year and a joy forever

The first time I watched it in order to criticise it, but I couldn’t find anything about it I didn’t love. I went back a second time for sheer pleasure.

The Artist is that rarest of phenomena: cinematic perfection. It’s my favourite film of 2011, and an uplifting movie that I know I will watch again and again.

A French picture shot in Hollywood with a largely American cast, it deserves to win Best Film, Director, Writer, Actor and Actress at next year’s Academy Awards, along with numerous technical prizes. If there were such an award, it would be a certainty to win Best Dog.

Black and white delight: Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo both shine in The Artist

Black and white delight: Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo both shine in The Artist

Treading the boards: Jean Dujardin as George and Missi Pyle as Constance in The Artist

Treading the boards: Jean Dujardin as George and Missi Pyle as Constance in The Artist

The Artist is — and I don’t write these words more than once every decade — a work of genius: witty, sophisticated and blessedly original. It is moving, charming and funny.

It’s one of the most touching, feelgood celebrations of love: love between the sexes, love between man and dog, and love of cinema. Oh, and it’s silent. And in black and white. Please don’t let either of these eccentricities put you off.

The ‘silent’ soundtrack has more than enough sound on it to keep anyone entertained. The witty, Oscar-worthy orchestral score is by Ludovic Bourse, mostly pastiche of the Twenties and Thirties, but with an extract from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo and a nod to Franz Waxman’s Sunset Boulevard.

There’s clever use of sound effects, especially during a hilarious nightmare sequence in which a silent movie star finds himself trapped in a world where everything emits sound except him.

Devoted fan: Peppy Miller is herself an aspiring actress but still an extra

Devoted fan: Peppy Miller is herself an aspiring actress but still an extra

And a marvellously unexpected transition to sound should have you grinning from ear to ear as you leave the cinema.

The style is breathtaking. It actually improves on the harsh photography of the originals, and looks more like the sophisticated, glamorous, black-and-white of the Forties’ golden era.

To achieve this, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman shot on colour stock with special diffusion filters, and then converted it to monochrome. The effect is uniquely magical. The film is a masterpiece of art deco design. Colour would only have detracted from its astonishing beauty.

It takes us back to an era associated with another of cinema’s greatest films, Singin’ In The Rain: the moment when sound came to cinema, making — and destroying — many a career.

Famous in France but internationally unknown, Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent movie star with the swashbuckling energy of Douglas Fairbanks Sr and the self-confidence of Gene Kelly.

We first meet George in 1927, hamming to the audience and hogging the limelight at a premiere, where he pays more attention to his pet Jack Russell terrier (played, quite brilliantly, by Uggy) than his disgruntled co-star and wife, played by Penelope Ann Miller as a glowering cross between Mary Astor and the middle-aged Joan Crawford.

We see that one of George’s most devoted fans is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), herself an aspiring actress but still an extra. George resists the temptation of an affair, but gives Peppy her big break.

George finds his star waning with the arrival of sound, which he thinks is a fad. He insists on his integrity as an artist and refuses to bow to fashion. As a result, he loses his wife, house and even his loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell).

George watches jealously as his former studio boss (John Goodman) turns Peppy into a talkies superstar. All the self-destructive, by now near-insane George has left is booze, some very flammable old films and his super-smart dog.

You may feel as though you’ve seen this film before, when it was called A Star Is Born.

There are similarities, but The Artist is more than a parody. It’s a brilliant tribute to a past age of movies, including the elegant romantic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, the silent thrillers of Fritz Lang and the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The film is an affectionate pastiche of all those and more, with its storytelling gusto, deliberate naivety and seemingly effortless charm. Cineastes will love the many references, but you won’t need to be a movie buff to be captivated.

Dujardin is known in France as a comic actor, but he shows marvellous profundity here. He has an extraordinary ability to overact and play for real at the same time.

Bejo, a gorgeous Franco-Argentine actress who is married to The Artist’s director, is a real find — a comedienne with the goofy charm of silent star Marion Davies.

This is a joyously entertaining movie, but also a potentially important one. It will, in our age of mindless action, 3D blockbusters and multi-million-dollar budgets, remind film-makers and audiences of the many wonderful qualities cinema has largely lost: elegance, beauty and heartfelt emotion.

This is a sweet, poignant, very funny movie. It’s also a great one. Watch it, and you’ll enter the new year with optimism.