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The Artist is a gorgeous reminder that story trumps all when it comes to movies, but style helps a lot.
Shot in black and white and with no sound, the film is a loving homage to the art of film. The setting is the dawn of talkies in Hollywood, and the film draws on conventions of old-school silent films as well as contemporary techniques.
The film was shot in the old 4:3 ratio and black and white, but then it contains much more movement of camera and editing than films from that era ever did. There are swoop-ing camera shots and lots of close-ups, and while the actors are expressive and there is a lot of emphasis on their facial ex-pressions, they never affect the “strike a pose” arm movements and stylised physical movements of silent films.
Those conventions are left for the films within the film – because we see our stars at work.
Jean Dujardin has taken home an Oscar for his performance as George Valentin, a Hollywood star at the top of his game, beloved by the masses, if not his wife.
This success counts for naught when talkies are introduced, but George sticks to the old way of doing things.
As with classic silent movies, we are presented with some intertitles, so how ironic to make a silent film about the advent of talkies and how – or so the urban myth goes – it destroyed the career of many a silent star.
As George’s career takes a dive, we see bright young thing Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) in the ascendancy and they help each other at crucial points. There’s a gorgeous scene where they meet on a staircase, after he has just storm-ed out of the studio’s offices, announcing his intention to go it alone, just as she has signed up with the very same studio in the hopes of working with him, whom she adores.
So when he tells her, “I’ve cleared the way for you”, nothing she can do will make up for his dashed dreams.
It doesn’t hurt that Dujardin and Bejo have the most engaging smiles and come across as icons of a bygone era. Dressed in striking costumes they move assuredly through detailed sets, creating well-rounded characters with a minimum of fuss.
There are references peppered throughout the film which could be drawing on the work of Charlie Chaplin (Peppy alone in George’s dressing room), WC Fields (Michael McDowell’s butler) and many others such as Alfred Hitchcock and even Orson Welles.
But the best part is that enjoying this film does not depend on a specialised knowledge of Holly-wood’s history to appreciate the traditions it is drawing from.
You can just take it for what it is – a sweet romantic comedy meets character falls from grace story, with a cute dog thrown in for good measure. Well paced, with sweeping cinematography, excellent comic timing and superb acting.
On the other hand, you could take it as as critique on how some people want to keep the film making process static and preserved on a museum shelf, versus those who want to keep on evolving their technique, when, let’s face it, you may pine for the days gone by, but could never sit through the slowly paced, stylised work of the golden age if it was put out on the big screen again in all its old-school glory.
If you liked… Hugo or Singin’ in the Rain… you will like this.
WE ARE so used to watching films in colour, we forget that the use of colour took a long time to establish itself. It may have been introduced in the 1930s, but only completely replaced black and white film in the late 1960s.
In the 1930s colour filming was expensive and the leading actors and directors still preferred black and white because the not-so-good scripts were given the colour treatment as an inducement to draw the audiences… kind of what is done with so many otherwise lacklustre blockbusters and 3d movies nowadays.
There were some exceptions, with the best work in colour coming from Brit Michael Powell, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948).
Technological advances led to an increase in colour filming because it became cheaper and the 1950s were characterised by black and white films co-existing with colour films on the big screen – 35mm with 70mm.
More leading directors chose colour as it became cheaper and easier to use the improving 35mm equipment and today black and white is a rare and expensive option.
Back in the day the Cinematography Academy Award was given to a person, not tied to a specific film. This was eventually changed to one person a film and between 1939 and 1967 (except for 1957) there were separate awards for colour and black and white cinematography.
Cinematographer Hal Mohr is the only person to win a write-in Academy Award, in 1935, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (he wasn’t nominated, people wrote in and said who they thought should win).
He’s also the only person to win an Oscar for cinematography for black and white and colour films, since he also won for the colour with The Phantom of the Opera (1943).
The last fully black and white Best Picture Oscar winner was Billy Wilder’s The Apartment in 1961, which combined touching romance and hilarious comedy and also won four other Oscars, including Best Director.
Schindler’s List, which finally won Steven Spielberg Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Cinematography (plus four more) in 1993, was mostly black and white.
The first British film to win a Best Picture Oscar was the first talkie of Hamlet, Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version. (The Hamlets that had gone before were silent, not the Best Picture winners). It’s Olivier’s only black and white directorial effort (and the only film until Life is Beautiful in 1998 in which an actor directed himself to an Oscar-winning performance).
The last silent film to win an Oscar for cinematography was Floyd Crosby for FW Murnau’s fictional story set in Tahiti, Tabu (1931).
Since then it’s been talkies all the way, until The Artist won Best: Picture, Director, Actor, Costume Design and Original Score, with a further five nods for Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, Screenplay and Supporting Actress. (The last film to win multiple Oscars in all the categories it was nominated in was LoTR: Return of the King with 11 in 2004.)