Hours away from certain Oscar glory The Artist remains underappreciated and misunderstood

(Published over at Flickering Myth on Oscar night)

The infamous and incomparable Academy Awards are about to launch their annual global invasion. Nothing will be able to resist the onslaught. Facebook and Twitter will be colonised, blogs occupied and living rooms stormed. Of course, every year, one film is promoted to lead the assault by a mixture of critical buzz, hype and hyperbole. This year The Artist, an outside bet when it emerged on the festival circuit way back in 2011, leads the charge for golden Oscar statuettes. And yet everyone remains baffled by it.

For a throwback to yesteryear The Artist has been pretty controversial, certainly a lot more than last year’s juggernaut, The King’s Speech. There was the furore surrounding the cinemagoers who asked for their money back when they discovered that the film was silent. Then, more recently, there have been the attacks on The Artist’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Ignorant sceptics scoffed at the irony of a film without dialogue getting the chance to win recognition for its script. Soon their infectious dribble was plastered all over the web, in the form of tiresome tirades too numerous and forceful to argue with.

The Artist’s script, written by its director Michel Hazanavicius, is in my view the most deserving winner in its category at tonight’s ceremony. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s screenplay, in the adapted category, is in some ways a greater achievement because of the way it condenses the original novel. But the idea that because The Artist is silent it does not tell a compelling story or craft magical moments is plainly ludicrous. There is far more to a screenplay than dialogue, as most film fans will know. Its main competitors for original screenplay are crude (Bridesmaids) or sporadically charming (Midnight in Paris), and not that original.

You might say that The Artist is not at all original. Before I saw it I suspected it to be an exercise in nostalgia, pandering to critics pining for Hollywood’s golden age. After you’ve seen it, you know that the film does a lot more than look back charmingly into the past. It does copy classics from the past with its gimmicks, flourishes and rise and fall structure. But it has its own completely unique perspective. The frustrating thing for fans of the film is that still, on Oscar day itself, The Artist is talked about only in terms of charm, musicality and entertainment.

On Friday Lisa Allardice posted to the books blog of The Guardian, inspired by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to speculate about which literary era would be the best to travel back in time to. In her introduction however a casual reference to The Artist irritated me. She says that in “direct contrast” to The Artist, Midnight in Paris is all about words. The thing that most surprised me after seeing The Artist was how much it is completely about words and language, despite being silent.

Hazanavicius uses his film’s modern day vantage point to look at the lost era of silent cinema, but he also uses silent movies to look at communication in the present day. Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin struggles throughout the story to express himself; as a professional, a lover and an artist. The scene where sounds suddenly burst into Valentin’s dreams is a perfect example of both this commentary on the saturation of modern day culture and the analysis of one character’s battle with the human condition.

The Artist is delightfully sweet, endearing and moving. I know this, even now, because as I write I am listening to tracks from Ludovic Bource’s sublime soundtrack. However, it is also about the limits and boundaries of language, what it can and cannot do. It is about much more than people give it credit for and there are many more meanings to discover from its simple story. It is worth bearing this in mind as its glamorous tidal wave washes away the competition at tonight’s Oscars. It’s the most interesting winner in years.

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