Film is constantly torn between the classic and the cutting edge, between new advances in special effects, and a nostalgia evoked in historical epics, literary translations and plain old remakes.
The Artist is in the latter camp, but no-one has ever plundered the past quite so bravely.
In 1927, married silent movie star George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, has a chance encounter on the red carpet with wide-eyed starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who he helps to get her big break.
But as Peppy’s star ascends, thanks to Valentin’s guidance, his own career is threatened by the switch to talkies. He can mug to camera and he can dance, but Valentin doesn’t want to speak, though why isn’t divulged.
As Peppy’s voice makes her the future for her studio, Valentin’s old fashioned sensibility and pride pushes him to the brink.
The Artist has enjoyed huge backing and is a shoe-in come awards season, but it has the hallmarks of an Oscar cause, an attempt to show that Hollywood does still make ‘em like this.
But they don’t make ‘em like that anymore for a reason. The crinkle of a sweet wrapper in a cavernous multiplex auditorium sounds like approaching thunder during this delicate film.
For the avoidance of doubt, this is an entirely silent film. It eschews the histrionic scores of the original silent films with a soft-impact soundtrack that allows the silence to breathe. But it’s the fact that the film has the courage of its convictions that allows it to transcend novelty to present its old-fashioned heartfelt love story.
Dujardin’s crumpled handsomeness manages the mix of matinee idol mugging and human emotion deftly. Bejo possesses real star quality. It beams from the screen in the early scenes and makes fames a matter of time, on screen and in real life.
But the real star here is writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, who after a short career in France now finds himself the toast of Hollywood. He has a wonderful eye for Chaplain-esque image-making and choreography. He makes The Artist seem inventive by borrowing from the distant cinematic past.
He adds layers of enjoyment, complimenting sepia charm with an arch modern line of films within films, as Valentin’s vehicles mirror his life, dying on screen as his career goes down the tubes.
The Artist also has a touch of darkness that brings to mind It’s A Wonderful Life, and Hazanavicious invests it with that magical Frank Capra feel.
Unlike most leftfield successes, The Artist won’t spawn a series of inferior imitators, or a sequel and for that alone it is refreshing.
But if cinema’s tendency towards the past is a choice between this kind of heartfelt, handmade homage, or a 3D re-release for Titanic, I’d take this every time.