by Leo Owen
The lead, George (Dujardin) stands in front of adoring fans in a beautifully ornate theatre after a film's premiere. He is instantly charismatic and remains likable, despite his success as a Hollywood star. On the set of “A German Affair”, he helps Peppy (Bejo), a young extra, shoot to fame after suggesting she adopts a beauty spot to make her stand out from the crowd.
Later, Kinograph Studios stop all silent productions to work on “talkies”. Refusing to move with the times, George is left jobless and is bankrupted after the stock market crash and a failed attempt to direct his first feature. While George's career is almost forgotten, Peppy is an emerging star.
Despite his demise, George remains the main source of comedy throughout the film. In his first introduction, he jokingly over-bows annoying his leading lady but gaining audience applause for his dog Uggie's clever tricks and his own tomfoolery. On set George continues to clown around, copying Peppy's dance moves behind a screen.
At home, life is less peachy and George's wife is shown comically defacing paparazzi shots of him. However distant they may have become, George at least has his trusty companion, Uggie who is trained to mimic everything he does in perfect time and can seemingly perform tricks unprompted, winning over the hearts of even the most passionate dog haters.
An early scene showing George's wife reading Variety acts as commentary on the power of gossip and the paparazzi. Later shots of George's new flat with its fold-out bed and his property being auctioned off are suggestive of how fickle both fans and Hollywood can be. A particularly charming scene comes before George's fall when we see the growing bond between Peppy and George as they repeatedly mess up a scene, momentarily forgetting where they are. Another enchanting scene highlights the effect George has on Peppy as she embraces herself with one arm of his coat.
Malcolm McDowell briefly pops up as an extra Peppy chats to while waiting to be cast and John Goodman stars as Kinograph's sympathetic fat cat boss. James Cromwell also appears as George's ever-loyal driver, Clifton.
Sectioned into subtitled years to show the film industry's progression through time, The Artist is beautifully shot. Hazanavicius combines more dated shots (circular wipe shots using the camera's iris) with contemporary artistic camerawork, involving mirror and glass table-top reflections. A montage of press cuttings shows Peppy's growing success and contrasts with a cheque signing montage that signifies George's imminent ruin. Heavy rain mirrors George's situation and mood and sepia tones occasionally appear.
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When George plummets into despair, Hazanavicius uses sound to great effect in an eerie nightmare sequence where George begins to hear amplified background sounds like laughter and the sound of a feather dropping but cannot himself speak. A wonderful Kinograph stair sequence is reminiscent of Escher while a drunken George arguing with his shadow and seeing mini versions of himself smacks of Hitchcock.
The use of sound in The Artist is comparable to Spielberg's use of colour in Shindler's List with subtitles and audio providing just enough insight into events to allow viewers to decipher what is going on while leaving them yearning for more. Warning of the dangers of pride and refusing to embrace ever-changing technology, The Artist is bold, brave and most deserving of its five Oscars.