29 January 2012

Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’

Five days before The Artist received its 10 Oscar nominations, Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection, a victim of ‘disruptive technology’. In Kodak’s case the capture of photographic images on film has been largely superseded by the use of digital electronics – a triumph of physics over chemistry. The alternative type of innovation, ‘evolutionary’, could have occurred, but Kodak management was too wedded, after more than a century, to its established ways. By contrast in early 1927 the major Hollywood studios, none having been established for long, formed an alliance to establish one system of sound-synchronised filming. This change was so successful that the last major silent film was made at the end of 1929.

Managed in this way the innovation may have been evolutionary for the studios, but for many of the silent movie stars the change turned out to be highly disruptive. The impact of the talkies on the careers of two artistes provides the theme for the film written and directed by Hazanavicius, together with Wilson Mizner’s* advice to "Be nice to people on the way up because you'll meet the same people on the way down". Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin whose career takes a nosedive when the silents go out, but is rescued by Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’ wife and mother of two) who becomes a screen goddess on the back of the talkies.

It’s a simple, charming, well-acted, lightweight homage to Hollywood back in the days when the sign still said “HOLLYWOODLAND” As everyone knows by now, it was shot in black and white in the old-fashioned Academy ratio (1.33:1) and is mostly silent.  Is it French?  Well up to a point: the money wasn’t French and it was (as far as I can tell) filmed in Hollywood with most of the cast being played by local stalwarts. But that hasn’t stopped it getting 10 nominations for the Césars (the French equivalent to the Oscars).

My ‘Anticipointment Index’ rating? Well, The Artist's certainly had a lot of publicity, but most of it has been realistic. Most people will feel that their expectations are matched by what’s delivered. A good mark, then, of 2 (out of 5, the lower the better).

*Wilson Mizner (1876-1933); American playwright who worked for Warner Bros. He also said: "If you copy from one author, it's plagiarism. If you copy from two, it's research." Which is encouraging for a blog like this one.

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