Rich Ashby

Portrait of The Artist

November 22nd, 2011 · No Comments

The Artist still

The closing film of this year’s Leeds International Film Festival was a real highlight, and perfect antidote to the Autumnal November gloom outside.

The Artist is a lovingly recreated homage to the dawn of cinema. Beginning in the late 1920s the film plots the rise and fall of star George Valentin (a clear reference to Valentino) as he struggles to adjust to the era of talkies, and the meteoric rise of ingenue Peppy Miller.  Norma Desmond’s ‘it was the pictures that got small’ quote from Sunset Boulevard sums up Valentin’s predicament well.

Bravely the film is silent throughout (except for a few brief sequences) and is shot in black and white using Academy ratio. Dialogue is sparse and appears on caption cards in between.

There are some real treats for film fans from the Hollywoodland sign on the hill, to amusing nods to German Expressionism and an inspired use of locations that instantly call to mind a host of early Hollywood classics.

The musical score is stunning thoughout, and cleverly references Bernard Herrmann’s Love Theme from Vertigo to underscore a key dramatic scene. In lesser hands attempting to introduce elements of a late 1950s score would have been crass, but here it worked beautifully.

Cinematography is equally outstanding. A few scenes really explored the use of light and high contrast, and I was instantly reminded of Greg Toland’s experimental tour de force in Citizen Kane.

Performances are excellent across the board. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin represents a blend of charm, raffishness and bravado. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Milly as a livewire mix of Louise Brooks, Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Look out for a decent Greta Garbo gag too. In the supporting roles James Cromwell as Valentin’s stoic chaffeur underplays things well and makes the most of his small role. John Goodman provides an entertainingly belligerent riff on monstrous moguls Louis B Mayer and Harry Cohn, with Malcolm McDowall offering an uncharacteristically restrained turn in his brief cameo. Oh, and in the shape of Uggie the dog they’ve found possibly the most charming canine actor ever.

As the film ended the auditorium of Hyde Park Picture House erupted in spontaneous and warm applause. It’s since gone on to win the audience prize for best film. See it for yourself when it opens late next month to understand why.

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