Leeds Film Festival 2011: Day 18

The Artist (Fra) (site)

This film will almost certainly not work in the modern cinema. Exactly why was demonstrated today when, halfway through this UK première screening of the first silent film to be made for eighty years or more, some insensitive clod in the audience pulled out the most massive and noisy bag of crisps and started crinkling and crunching. In an era when idiot dropout teens chew gum and chat to their idiot friends sat an aisle across from them whilst in the fricking theatre, and fatty, snacky, noisy treats are for sale and make up a considerable part of the revenue for a cinema, silent films just do not fit.

And that's a damnable shame, because The Artist is getting all sorts of attention at the moment; part of it is the novelty of a major new silent film, but also because it is damn good too. If you didn't recognise John Goodman or a fleeting Malcolm McDowell you could quite easily be fooled into thinking you were watching a digitally restored print of an ancient film. The aspect ratio is the old 4:3 format, the credits appear on static cards and are accompanied at the start by a mono-sounding orchestra, and when characters speak, only choice phrases are turned into the intertitles, the written substitute for dialogue of the era. There are also more subtle methods used to really bring in the spirit of the age, such as soft focus, restricted camera freedom (basic track and pan shots, but mostly a static mount) and old-fashioned fade-outs and ins. For all it's attempt to look basic and 'primitive' - for want of a better word - we get a beautifully-realised facsimile of a golden era where the work that has gone into it gives it beauty.

Even the story evokes a previous age of film. Taking place just as silent films are being replaced by 'talkies', distinguished, suave (and slightly slimy) actor George Valantin - a typical slicked back actor of the age with a bounder's pencil moustache and an eye for the ladies, has a successful silent film career but a less than perfect relationship with his silently seething wife. A chance meeting with Peppy, a beautiful young woman (the mesmerising Bérénice Bejo) at a red carpet reception doesn't help, and her opportunistic kiss on his cheek propels her to the front cover of the days news, and eventual stardom as an accomplished actress. At the same time George's film company ditches the comfortable silent film and starts on the talkies, but George cannot make the leap, and as Peppy's fame skyrockets, George ends up losing it all.

You have a beautiful woman, an older man on the edge of his career (echoing the themes of Limelight), you have romance and scandal, success and failure, comedy and tragedy, a talented canine (the adorable Uggy won the Palm Dog this year) and a cracking dance number worthy of Rogers and Astaire at the end. When the credit's rolled, the film received the loudest and most sustained round of applause I had witnessed at any festival; it felt a little like this film had an indefinable something that eighty years of talkies had somehow lost, and for a single film at least, we had witnessed it's return. I loved it, and provided you can catch it when there isn't an inconsiderate fool with a bag of crisps in there with you at the same time, you will too. A great film to end the festival with. 8.5/10

PS: Even though it's a French film, it's all in English, so don't worry about bringing someone along who turns their nose up at subtitles.

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