Delightful is an adjective that seems to be rarely used any more in a non-ironic sense. Along with ‘lovely’ and ‘adorable’, it’s usually more patronising than complimentary – it seems to suggest an slightness or airiness that mark something as inoffensive yet nothing to get seriously passionate about. Why though? Have we become that cynical that we’re suspicious of anything where the sole intention is to make us happy? Does being delighted make us feel so guilty?
Comrades, let’s reclaim delightful on behalf of THE ARTIST, one of the most delightful films in decades. It mines a vein of unbridled joy left largely left untouched by live action cinema in recent years – in a festival slate of films fueled by rape, coercion and despair; in a world of endless, mean-spirited, jizz-streaked gross out comedies; in a world when THE fucking TOURIST is nominated at the Golden Globes as best musical/comedy, Michel Hazanavicius’ THE ARTIST arrives like an oasis of pure pleasure in a desert of ‘will-this-do?” laziness and morbid navel-gazing.
You’ll find nothing in this review that will give away any of THE ARTIST’s jokes or plot points, as much of the film’s pleasure comes from them being revealed to you – there’s a seemingly endless supply of both visual and comic invention, and all you can really do (on a first viewing at least) is be entranced by the sheer wonder of it all. However, I’ll say this much – THE ARTIST focuses on George Valentin, (Jean Dujardin) a much-feted silent movie star, as he forges his career in Hollywoodland through the 20s and 30s, while the aspiring dancer and actress Peppy Miller (the gob-smackingly beautiful Bérénice Bejo), who he first encounters in a chance meeting, also tries to make it in showbusiness alongside him.
It’s worth noting that while THE ARTIST obviously pays homage to the silent movies of the 20s, it’s spiritual ancestor is clearly SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – their plots are structured similarly and hit very similar beats, and Julardin even bears a striking resemblance to Gene Kelly. Its biggest similarity with RAIN however is in its sheer exuberant love for movies – it’s arguably the first film since RAIN where movie-making actually feels ‘magic’, and its enthusiasm is infectious.
Dujardin, best know for the incredibly successful James Bond parody series OSS (also directed by Hazanavicius), won the Best Actor award at Cannes and it could not be more deserved – it’s a remarkable performance, mixing elements of Errol Flynn, Gene Kelly, Clark Gable, and Charlie Chaplin into a perfect, raffish hybrid of old-Hollywood leading men. He’s required to do a lot of emotional heavy-lifting in the film as well as light comedy, and pulls it off magnificently. Bejo is equally good and totally convincing in all senses as a 1920s movie starlet, and there are excellent supporting performances from James Cromwell as Valentin’s butler and especially John Goodman as, perhaps inevitably, a cigar-chomping studio bigwig.
I found myself welling up a number of times during THE ARTIST. One a couple of occasions it was due to something poignant happening in the storyline, but mostly it was a result of just being made so, so happy by what I was witnessing. There are moments in THE ARTIST that, in terms of pure on screen magic, are on a par with Gene Kelly’s umbrella dance, Chaplin’s fork and bread roll puppet show, the mirror sequence in DUCK SOUP, and the boulder scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It really is that good.
I could elaborate for pages and pages about my favourite moments in THE ARTIST, and the technical brilliance displayed by Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, the immense production design, and fantastic score, but such is the spell cast by THE ARTIST that it seems wrong to break it down into its fulfilling parts. Don’t watch any trailers, or read too many reviews. All you need to know is that it’s another must-see, a future classic, and you will be a better, happier person for having seen it. It’s a film about movies, made by movie-lovers, for movie-lovers – yet it’s a movie that everyone will love. It is delightful.