Ok, so my last cinema trip of 2011 was to go and see an homage to the early days of cinema (Hugo); my first visit of 2012 is to see another, this time with a heavy dose of regret for what was lost with the passing of silent films.
This film is a joy, a mostly comic melodrama that hits real emotional punch when it needs to. Though the chorus of approval from cinema critics could lead to some over-expectant viewers being disappointed, it did not in my case. There are knowing nods to films right through cinema history – from the hero himself, Jean Dujardin’s ‘George Valentin’, drawing from Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks and Valentino, to the plot, which is basically A Star is Born.
We first see Valentin in his pomp, as he shows off at the premiere of yet another hit movie, his attention-grabbing antics showing how spoiled he has become by fame, though we are later shown his basic decency. Outside, he bumps into a fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who steals a kiss in front of the cameras. Soon, there is a clamour to know who she is and she manages to translate that interest into a career. As her star waxes, Valentin’s wanes as he refuses to make the newfangled ‘talkies’, seeing them as cheap and tawdry and lacking in real artistry, and he attempts to rectify matters with a serious silent film that, he hopes, will show what can be achieved.
Much of the interest around this film has been that it is the first silent movie for about 80 years (Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie aside and, like that film, this has a couple of moments of sound) but also because it has been done so lovingly. I’ve been watching a fair few old films recently, including silent ones and this picks up on all the things about that method of film making that are good – the emphasis on showing us, rather than telling us, what is happening, the beautiful visuals and the strong, simple plotting. It has strong support from James Cromwell and John Goodman (surely born to play a movie mogal) and everything just feels right. This is one of those rare films that I’d be perfectly happy to pay to see again right away.