Shot in black and white and told without dialogue, Cannes favorite The Artist hearkens back to another era. Michel Hazanavicius’ nouvelle silent movie stars Jean Dujardin, winner of the best actor award at Cannes for his performance. The film’s first official trailer was released last night, and Oscar buzz about Dujardin, and the film itself, is already building.
Dujardin’s character, George Valentin, is perhaps meant to suggest Rudolph Valentino, but to me, Dujardin more fully channels silent era star John Gilbert, often seen opposite Greta Garbo, and the pure physicality of Gene Kelly playing a silent-to-talkies actor in 1952′s Singing in the Rain. (When you count the film’s canine star, a terrier straight out of The Thin Man movies, William Powell also comes to mind). It may be Dujardin’s ability to suggest all those actors at once that won over the judges at Cannes and will nudge him onto an Oscar shortlist.
The film is full of deliberately archaic aesthetic choices to further set the scene, but Hazanavicius’ decision to shoot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio tops the list. 1.33:1 was the original Academy ratio (actually 1.37:1) used during cinema’s classic era. It’s the same as the 4:3 ratio used for analogue TV. CinemaScope literally burst open the screen in 1953 with the release of The Robe, and though the new wider format was soon made obsolete by Panavision’s evolving lenses and camera technology, it launched the beginning of an anamorphic era that continues to this day.
While use of the original Academy aspect ratio and black-and-white photography make The Artist read like kind of film it is honoring, it also gives its director a chance to show off his visual chops. Kubrick famously shot his last masterworks at 1.37:1, composing and cropping them to 1.85:1 for theatrical projection (and causing all kinds of problems, in his avoidance of letterbox, with the releases of those films on DVD and Blu-ray for 16:9 televisions).
The Artist‘s Hazanavicius no doubt understands, as Kubrick did, that it’s a lot harder to pull off the rule of thirds when framing a shot in widescreen (the perfect golden mean springs mathematically from 1.33:1, after all ). But because The Artist will also screen at 1.33:1, it is precisely this difference that will set it apart from all the rest screening at 1.85:1 and up, including Woody Allen’s overtly nostalgic Midnight in Paris. In addition to Dujardin, the framing is just another of the stealth charms in this visual homage to the high craft of film’s earliest commercial era.
Watch the trailer and decide for yourself: