First of all, it's French, which is usually the starting point of the alarming amount of bias I display towards films from foreign directors.
Secondly, I'd read somewhere that at its first screening at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, it had had hardcore film buffs on their feet clapping wildly, and I thought: right, this is definitely one to see.
One of two things usually happens whenever I watch a film: I either leak tears at the smallest opportunity, or my very imaginative mind will most likely be transporting whatever I have watched on screen into a vivid dream for later (Should I be worried that even though I've only seen previews of My Week with Marilyn, I've already had a dream where I had to give Eddie Redmayne motorcycle lessons of all things?!). Take the time when I watched Clash of the Titans as a tween. In the middle of the night, I ran screaming from my room because I thought a bunch of shirts and what nots hanging behind my bedroom door had turned into the head of Medusa and was about to 'catch' me. I woke my mum up with startling urgency, and in a shaky voice insisted that, 'I can't sleep in that room,' but her initial concern from being shaken roughly awake quickly descended into unamusement whereby I was informed in no uncertain terms to stop the nonsense and go back to bed RIGHT NOW.
I slunk off meekly. And denied vigorously the next morning when my brother teased me about being a baby. I kept a deliberately blank face, and said with the right level of bemusement, 'But what ARE you talking about?' before injecting a patronizing note into my voice: 'Suuure, if you insist..' As though HE were the one going loopy and imagining Medusa's head behind his bedroom door.
Or how about how even now as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would still cry buckets at the scene where Mufasa dies in Lion King? (Simba: helllp! Anybody? Somebody? *sniffles* Ow. Then a lone tear rolls down his face, and..and..oh boy..I might be welling up at the memory right now..) So let me not talk of the preview of war time film, War Horse, shown before The Artist began...
I have therefore known for some time that when it comes to films, I am a romcom kind of girl. Yes, I will see other genres and styles of cinema - action comedy, heritage films about historically important moments, urban and gritty dramas about inscribing difference, heck, High School Musical 1, 2 and 3 (I was with little'uns, you understand..) and just about anything that comes highly recommended, but ultimately, I'm an unrepentant romcom-er. And boy, have I been suitably romanced by The Artist, the silent movie that beat the cacophony of talking pictures and left cinema goers in an excited state.
The story takes us back to Hollywood in the glamorous twenties, where we meet George Valentin (Jean DuJardin) at the peak of his silent movie career. He has just screened his latest picture, A Russian Affair, to rapturous applause in a packed theatre and is basking in the adulation of fans and paparazzi outside when a woman bumps into him as she's picking up her dropped purse. There's a frozen hold-your-breath moment as all wait for Valentin's reaction. He flashes his megawatt smile, and there's a collective sigh of relief and a giddyness as he gamely poses for photos with the woman in question, who, emboldened by his move, plants a playful kiss on his cheek to the delight of the press.
She is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the young dancer and actress with the beautiful smile and great legs (a scene where she practices behind a screen with only her legs showing is scintillatingly distracting) whose gradual rise to darling status in Hollywood is juxtaposed with Valentin's fall to insignificance as sound becomes the new technology in cinema.
There's a chemistry between them that won't allow Valentin to play his usual slick self when Peppy shares a dance scene with him as an extra in his new film. They laugh and ruin several takes , until an electric moment when they stare at each other as though caught up in an unexpected coup de foudre. But for all his flirtatious inclinations, Valentin is faithfully married, even if it is to a stiffly boring woman whose departure from his life at his lowest moment may be the one silver lining to his cloud.
The preppy Peppy, meanwhile, triumphs in the 'talkies' but has never forgotten the influence Valentin had on her, including the beauty spot he tenderly placed near her upper lip so she stood out from all the other actresses, a faux spot she has since kept. As she shoots higher and higher, she follows Valentin's life discreetly, and in her sunny, good-natured way becomes the understated heroine of The Artist
There are several laugh-out-loud moments, aided by Valentin's canine friend Uggie, who knows a trick or two and seems to shine under the playful tutelage of his master. If Peppy is the saving of Valentin's career, Uggie is the dog that makes it possible.
Interestingly, sound is used to great effect in this silent movie. (Funnily enough, the start of the movie was so quiet that I held my breath on a few occasions. I know I definitely stopped chomping on my popcorn more than once for fear of disturbing others). There are the musical scores - of course - but ultimately, Hazanavicius's clever use is seen in a midway scene with Valentin trapped in a nightmare of deafening and exaggerated noise.
Whatever you DON'T do, make sure you see this exquisite offering. You will marvel at how an almost completely silent movie - and in black and white! - became the talk of the awards season. You will catch yourself wondering if the few inter-titles as dialogue is the film's way of making you laud silence as the purer, more engaging art form. And, if we're anything alike, you will conclude thus: that it's a brilliant film which resurrects the old idiom that heralds silence as not only golden, but the new noise.
So shh! No talking at the back.