The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in 'The Artist'

A belated Happy New Year to everyone visiting this blog, and thanks very much for all your support. I intend to update more this year, hopefully at least once a week, so watch this space! This will mean keeping my postings shorter, as I have been promising for ages… though I may relapse into long-windedness when I write about one of my favourite actors or directors.  Anyway, up to now I haven’t written about any new releases on this blog, as I’m concentrating on films from the past,  but in the last week I’ve seen two acclaimed new films which are about classic movie-making, The Artist and My Week with Marilyn, so I thought it would make a change to write something about each of them.

I liked both, especially The Artist, which feels almost like a film made for me personally – though I know many others feel this too. For one thing, it is  a loving homage to films made between 1929 and 1932, a period covering the death of silent films and the birth of  pre-Code talkies, which I have been discovering over the last couple of years. (The hero, played by Jean Dujardin,  looks uncannily like John Barrymore, one of my favourite actors, in some of his swashbuckling roles, especially when he turns his head and is glimpsed in profile.) For another, the plot is yet another version of  A Star Is Born, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the past year watching and writing about various versions of this endlessly reworked story.

The film is shot in black and white and almost all of it is silent, except for the music on the soundtrack, beautifully re-creating the vanished world of 1920s Hollywood. Actor George Valentin (Dujardin) and his devoted pet dog star in a succession of swashbuckling hits, but it all abruptly comes to an end when talkies are introduced in 1929 – just as it did for many actors in real life. George’s French accent means he will not be wanted for talking pictures, and he must make way for newer stars like the beautiful extra whom he briefly flirted with and encouraged, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, whose vibrant, dazzling screen personality appears to be modelled on Clara Bow). There is a painful scene where George overhears Peppy giving an interview in a restaurant, gloating innocently over the triumph of her youth and beauty and how the old must give way to the young – and he gets up from his table to tell her sarcastically that he is doing just that. “I give way to you.”

Jean Dujardin and Uggy the dog

In all the versions of A Star Is Born which I’ve seen, the star on the wane hits the booze while his young replacement rises to fame. George does just the same in this film, with haunting scenes of him alone in his untidy flat, surrounded by empty bottles. However, the difference in this film is that he only starts drinking after his career is already ruined, drowning his sorrows rather than creating them. For all its apparently sweet and frothy surface, this film possibly has a bleaker message than Wellman and Cukor’s versions, because it shows that you don’t have to be a drunk, or to do anything wrong, to find yourself replaced by a younger generation. Time, and the relentless advance of technology, are enough. I’ve read some reviews of this movie which have claimed that its drama is shallow and there is no subtext, but anyone working in a dying industry would surely disagree.

However, despite and around this bleak core, the film is great fun to watch. Guillaume Schiffman’s black-and-white camerawork is endlessly inventive, with wonderful scenes like the one where Peppy’s legs are seen dancing behind a screen while her face is hidden, and the pastiche scenes from silent films, such as George fighting duels, or sinking into quicksand (all too symbolic) are beautifully done.

Above all, George’s dog gives an astonishing, comic and scene-stealing performance, often acting  out what his master is feeling. There’s an interesting review of the film by Anne-Katrin Titze at Eye For Film where she says: “I asked Hazanavicius at the press conference, if he felt he didn’t have enough challenges making a silent film in black and white and had to add a rambunctious dog to half of the scenes. He answered that he saw George and the dog (Uggy is his real name) as “one character with two bodies”.”

All in all, I’d definitely recommend this film to anyone interested in 1920s and 30s cinema, and I’m hoping it will get some Oscar nominations, which seems highly likely.


28 thoughts on “The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

  1. Hey Judy, I’m glad you found this movie as good as I did (we posted our reviews at just about the same time today! You did well to recall specific scenes that are noteworthy and to give credit to the camera work. I was rather enthralled by the attention to detail and subliminal underlying theme that works to sustain the strength of the message. Thanks for the perspective!


    • Thanks very much for commenting, Sophie – I enjoyed your review a lot and will leave a comment there too. I agree that the attention to detail in this film is wonderful, as the period feeling is built up so well that you could almost believe the film was really made then rather than now. Thanks again!


  2. Just found your blog and I’m loving it! I’ve subscribed :)

    I’m glad you loved it too. Sure, it’s incredibly airy but like you said, it’s a fun movie to watch.

    Check out my review!


  3. Judy – I was very interested to see your take on this film, and not surprised that you loved it. I found it very sweet and charming, with Dujardin (and Uggi!) particularly wonderful. Afterwards, though, I just wanted to go back and watch all the movies it referenced: “Citizen Kane,” and “Singin’ in the Rain” as well as “A Star is Born,” especially the 1937 verision, which is the only one I’ve not seen. I happened upon the prototype “What Price, Hollywood?” a couple of years ago, and was particularly impressed with it. I’m sorry to have missed your previous coverage of the various versions, and will be looking for those posts next.


    • Thanks very much, Pat! The versions of ‘A Star Is Born’ I’ve written about are ‘What Price Hollywood?’ which impressed me a lot too, and the 1937 Wellman movie, plus another couple of 1930s films which had some similarities/links with those films. Anyway, you have a treat in store with the 1937 version! I have fairly recently seen the Judy Garland version, which was Cukor’s second take on the story, but I didn’t get round to writing a review of it – and I saw the Streisand version on release but haven’t seen it since, so should probably revisit that one if I get a chance! I should really see ‘Citizen Kane’ again too… so many films, so little time.


  4. I had the opportunity last night to goand see either The Artist, My Week with Marilyn or the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Tragically, and that’s no exaggeration, I allowed myself to be talked into seeing the latter. Ah well, maybe next week…


    • My son’s a big fan of Downey as Holmes, so I’ve also seen that one – I actually quite enjoyed it though not nearly as much as The Artist or My Week with Marilyn. Hope you get a chance to see those soon, Colin!


  5. Your positive review is the only one so far that has partially alleviated my dread of seeing it. You’ve been very perceptive in understanding the era, so it gives me hope. Most of the reviews I’ve read so far have been from other reviewers across the pond or Americans who I’m not confident know Hollywood of that time well enough. If it’s entertaining, I’ll probably consider it fine, but if it’s too anachronistic in attitude, style, and milieu I’ll likely be grinding my teeth while watching, much like I did when I was a teen and saw those faux-deco titles and badly copied flapper outfits used in the 1970s.

    Here’s hoping!


    • Well, I hope you like it – I certainly found it entertaining and it didn’t feel anachronistic to me, but as you know Hollywood of that era so well you may spot things that I missed. I’d say it is definitely well worth seeing and will be interested to hear what you think! Thanks for the kind comment.


  6. Judy: Wonderful piece here on a film I have liked more and more on re-viewings, and one which has now officially made my own Top Ten for 2011 list. I like the astute observations you make about A STAR IS BORN and the darker elements not at all mitigating against what is surely the most entertaining film of this past year. Certainly it has beguiled the critics to the tune of spectacular nearly unanimous reviews, and I see them as well deserved. Michael Havanicius’ irresistible film is (ultimately) as ‘feel good’ a film as we’ve seen in many a year, and it’s title truly reflects the exceeding craftsmanship that went into it’s making from all quarters. It’s splendidly acted by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, superbly scored by Ludovic Bource, shot by Guillaume Schiffman, the film is a glorious homage to silent cinema, and a delightful stylization of reality, replete with the poignant loneliness of the main character on the decline. A Jack Russell terrier named Uggie gives what is probably the most extraordinary performance of a dog in the history of cinema. The main point as I see it as posed in the film is that ‘The passage of time may well alter but never really erase the unmitiagted simple joys of the past, which manifest themselves in this film in the romance of a charming hero and a lovely ingenue.” Yes, the opening sequence is brilliant, and yes the fire sequence is superlative, but there is really so much more here. By channeling the frothy aspects of the kind of silent cinema that really flourished with audiences of the period, Hazanavicious brought to the fore a persuasive honesty to the emotions that dominated nearly a hundred years ago. The Artist looks to encore the infectious exuberance through song and dance and physical actions of a period that of course also featured darker themes.

    Again, I much appreciate this wonderful piece on a fabulous film.


    • Thanks very much for the detailed comment, Sam, and for all your enthusiasm for the film. I suppose I have focused more on the dark themes than on the frothy and feel-good aspects, but really the two work together brilliantly. I do see the upbeat song and dance ending as something of a dream after the darker potential ending which has just been threatened – and I think the film itself recognises the unreality of that happy ending. Thanks again!


  7. Judy very nice review of a film I haven’t seen yet. It’s not playing in Kalamazoo. Big surprise! Haha. Anyway, glad to hear you also liked My Week With Marilyn. I REALLY liked it. In fact wrote an essay a few weeks back. Looking forward to yours and it seems like it’s not getting a whole lot of respect from the blogger crowd.


    • Thanks, Jon, and I hope you do get to see ‘The Artist’, I’ll check out your piece on ‘My Week with Marilyn’. I want to watch ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ before writing about it, but will hope to do so in the next few days!


    • Haha yeah I watched The Prince and the Showgirl recently and have also read one of the memoirs. It has added to my enjoyment of My Week With Marilyn.


  8. Judy, I’d love to see The Artist and greatly appreciate your reviewing it. Makes me want to see it even more. Sadly, living in Podunkville (even though it happens to be a state capital) means the movie is not even slated to open here any time soon. :( Guess I’ll have to wait until it’s out on DVD. My teen son and I watched the trailer, and he was so excited b/c the trailer begins with his favorite song, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” He was also excited that the trailer is in B&W. Me, too. Happy New Year!


    • Happy New Year to you too, CagneyFan! Sorry to hear this film hasn’t made it to your city – it is a shame to have to see it on DVD as it makes a powerful impression on the big screen, but I’m sure you will enjoy it anyway. My teenage son wasn’t interested in seeing it, I’m afraid, though I’m sure he would love the dog!


  9. I loved this film too Judy and your review meets the high standards of the film itself. Coincidently, one of the big stories going around today is about the use of Bernard Herrmann’s music from Vertigo toward the end of THE ARTIST with no credit being given to Hermann himself. Kim Novak has even commented on it saying she feels the film (Vertigo) was “raped.” The director of THE ARTIST claims today it was a homage to the great composer and Mr. Hitchcock. Here is a link on the story.


    • Thanks for that link, John – I don’t know what to think about that controversy at all and am surprised to hear Kim Novak reacted so strongly. It is a pity she was upset – I see the music was licensed correctly but it sounds as if it was a pity Herrmann wasn’t mentioned in the credits. Glad to hear you liked the film, and thank you very much!


  10. I really enjoyed this movie too and you hit on most of the reasons I fell for it. Jean Dujardin is at the top of the list. He’s utterly charming and lovable. I find it interesting that he reminded you of John Barrymore. I certainly thought of him, but I was thinking that he looked a lot like Douglas Fairbanks with a touch of John Gilbert. That smile especially evoked Fairbanks for me.

    I liked it a lot more than My Week with Marilyn, which isn’t a bad movie. I just found it average, though I’m not sure I bought that guy’s story. It’s too self-serving. But it’s fine and Michelle Williams does an good job even though I don’t think she was really right for the part.

    The Artist, though, is a wonderful film that will surely end up on my best of 2011 list.


    • I probably thought of Barrymore first just because he is one of my favourites and I’ve seen a lot of his films, whereas I haven’t seen very much Gilbert or Fairbanks – something I hope to put right! Glad to hear that you liked this film a lot too and I agree with you that Dujardin is great. Sounds as if I liked ‘My Week with Marilyn’ more than you did – I really enjoyed seeing Branagh as Olivier. I’m not sure that the young hero came across all that well, as he treated the girlfriend badly, ditching her to “trade up” as she herself said somewhere along the line… but anyway, totally agree with you on ‘The Artist’. Thanks, Jason.


    • I don’t know if the kid in My Week with Marilyn looks bad necessarily. Yes, he treats the young girl shabbily, but let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t ditch whoever their with for Marilyn Monroe? Even I would have and I’m not even attracted to her.


    • I’d like to hope you are wrong. But I suppose most people never get the chance to ditch reality for the dream person, so it isn’t put to the test.


    • Yeah I agree with Jason’s point. Colin Clark’s behavior is probably very much like what a lot of guys would do in a similar situation. Become delusioned!! Haha this is probably for another post when you get to this movie!


    • Well, I do hope most people wouldn’t give in to that delusion at the expense of a real relationship. But anyway, yes, I want to discuss all this when I get on to writing about ‘My Week with Marilyn’ – I have ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ now so will get to that soon and probably write about the two movies together.


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