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The Artist

 

Who would have thought that the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the prestigious Academy Awards annually, would look so kindly upon a 2011 French import? An Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s ceremony (slated to take place on February 26, 2012), The Artist (100 minutes, PG) is also strongly tipped to win Best Actor for its leading man Jean Dujardin, as well as a statuette for its French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, who was hitherto famous for his OSS 117 spy-film parodies.

 

Maybe it’s easy to overlook the film’s nationality, because it doesn’t contain any French dialogue. Well, there’s zilch dialogue for that matter (save for a couple of lines, including one thickly French-accented English phrase uttered by Dujardin at the end), since The Artist is made as a silent movie. So you see the mouths moving, but you don’t hear a single word. Sometimes, the dialogue appears as text flashed across the screen – just like in the good old days of silent movies.

 

Those who enter the cinema to watch this film without any prior knowledge of its “silent” status will be in for a surprise (hopefully, a pleasant one), as this romantic dramedy is ultimately easy to like. Dujardin plays a 1920s silent film star George Valentin, who enjoys immense fame and fortune… that is, until his studio decides to start making the “talkies” that new film technologies has ushered in. His adoring fan and an aspiring actress, Peppy Miller (played by Argentinian-born French actress, Bérénice Bejo), got a head start in the movie business due to his encouragement and pulling of strings, but she is now a new star in her own right – her films become runaway hits, while George’s insistence to stick with silent movies ends in failure.

 

There is no doubt that Dujardin’s suave and expressiveness looks make him the ideal person for his role, and he shares tender chemistry with Bejo as pride and circumstances stand in the way of their simmering affections. The film is very well made, with attention given to costume and set design details that bring out the nostalgia associated with the story’s time period. Black and white cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman, accompanied with a pervasive but enchanting music score by Ludovic Bource, is top-rate.

 

You’ll recognise some Hollywood faces in the supporting cast – like John Goodman as the studio boss, James Cromwell as George’s faithful chauffeur and Penelope Ann Miller as the disillusioned wife that George neglects – but it’s Uggie the Jack Russell Terrier (last seen in Water for Elephants) that steals the show as George’s co-star and loyal canine companion.

 

Still, as much as I’m smitten by this sweet likeable film loaded with feel-good sentimentality, I have to say that I’m not as overwhelmed as its staunch admirers who are ever eager to heap accolades. Sure, it was sheer audacity that possessed Hazanavicius to make a silent film in this era of 3-D blockbusters filled with the latest visual effects. But silent-film buffs would be quick to point out that they have seen better examples. Just take a look at classics like City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), both of which the great Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and acted in, and The Artist’s shortfall is apparent.

 

Dexter Yong

 


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