100 minutes

A precious little diamond that apparently comes out of nowhere to sweep you off your feet, The Artist (in English in the original, mind you) is a tender, dazzling tribute to classic Hollywood that follows the time-honoured tradition of showbiz melodramas while injecting a healthy sense of meta-fiction in its story. In effect, French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius' film quotes liberally from classic Hollywood tales such as A Star Is Born, Chaplin's Limelight and Donen & Kelly's Singin' in the Rain in its tale of a silent film star (a note-perfect Jean Dujardin, Best Actor at Cannes 2011, channeling Douglas Fairbanks by way of Gene Kelly) whose career falls on hard times when the advent of sound passes him by, as a young protegée he helped gain a foothold (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a runaway star.

     So far so good, but the trick in Mr. Hazanavicius' project, set between 1927 and 1932, is that The Artist is actually a silent movie, with intertitles replacing the spoken dialogue and a continuous music score by Ludovic Bource, and shot in black and white in the 1:33 Academy ratio. It could very easily fall in the trap of a mannered ersatz silent, especially because it's impossible to perfectly duplicate the grain and tone of 1920s film, but it miraculously becomes a soulful elegy for a simpler, cleaner, classier way of moviemaking where everything was simultaneously more expressive and more sophisticated than most of what passes today as cinema.

     That is where Mr. Hazanavicius wins his wager: The Artist is never about the technical proficiency of the illusion, but about the use of that illusion in the service of the narrative and the emotion. Yes, the story is a hodge-podge of references (and there's even a bit of a wink to Jerry Lewis in one scene), and the film isn't the only modern-day attempt at updating the silent movie (Mel Brooks and Aki Kaurismäki have done so among others). But this lovingly assembled throwback is a film with the heart in the right place - a love letter to cinema whose easy-going nostalgia never feels gratuitous and instead celebrates its transforming power.

Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo; James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller; and John Goodman.
     Directed and written by Michel Hazanavicius; produced by Thomas Langmann; music by Ludovic Bource; director of photography (b&w), Guillaume Schiffman; production designer, Laurence Bennett; costume designer, Mark Bridges; film editors, Anne-Marie Bion, Mr. Hazanavicius.
     A Thomas Langmann presentation of a Studio 37/La Petite Reine/La Classe Américaine/JD Productions/France 3 Cinéma/Jouror Productions/uFilm production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cinécinéma, France Télévisions. (French distributor, Warner Bros. Pictures. World sales, Wild Bunch/Studio 37/La Petite Reine.)
     Screened: Festa do Cinema Francês 2011 opening night, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), October 6th 2011. 


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