‘The Artist’ a witty, splendid homage to the silent film era
You can’t say filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius lacks the courage of his convictions. When he set out to make a movie that pays homage to Hollywood’s silent era, not only did he film in vintage black-and-white, he dared to shoot the entire movie without audible dialogue, relying on only the occasional title card, music, and the actors’ expressiveness to tell the story. The splendid result is The Artist, in which Hazanavicius wields the classic storytelling tools of the silent film era with fresh new exuberance. It may look and feel vintage, but The Artist is one of the most original movies of the year.
Set in Hollywood, the story revolves around silent film star George Valentin, played with verve and brio by the wonderful French actor Jean Dujardin. As comfortable onscreen in a tuxedo as he is wielding a swashbuckler’s sword or flying a spy plane, George enjoys Douglas Fairbanks-style popularity in 1927 Hollywood. At the premiere of his latest film, he and his trusty, performing Jack Russell terrier are obliged to come out onstage and take a bow before the adoring public, soaking up their adulation like sunshine at the beach.
Outside, where fans are lining up for autographs, one young woman ducks down to retrieve her dropped book, and inadvertently butts into the star himself. As flashbulbs pop, George pretends to freeze her with his steely gaze, but he’s so good-natured, he laughs it off and poses with her for the cameras. Next morning, while the headlines scream “Who’s That Girl?” we find out she’s Peppy Miller (vivacious Berenice Bejo), an eager young extra at the Kinograph studio where George is the main attraction.
But the new phenomenon of talking pictures is on the horizon. George thinks it’s a passing fad, and when Kinograph studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) suspends production of silent films to convert to sound, George goes off solo to produce his next big silent epic himself. But by the time it comes out, both the film and George seem antiquated to a public hungry for the innovation of sound—like the romantic comedy that makes ingénue Peppy Miller a star. When his fortune is wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash, and his wife leaves him, George spirals downward as Peppy’s star rises.
It’s a familiar Star Is Born showbiz plot, but echoed in many real-life Hollywood stories, especially with the advent of the talkies. (Romantic screen idol John Gilbert famously failed to transition to sound because of his lightweight voice.) In reel life, the situation was played for laughs in Singin’ in the Rain, and Dujardin owes as much to Gene Kelly in that affectionate spoof as he does to Fairbanks in his portrayal of George. But Dujardin also grounds George with quiet, soulful gravity beneath his megawatt smile and effortless charisma.
Marvelous too is Hazanavicius’ use of gesture and composition to further the story (along with Ludovic Bource’s savvy musical score). When George and Peppy have a playful, tap-dancing duel on opposite sides of a half-raised scrim, or have to keep retaking their 10 seconds of screen time together because they keep making each other laugh, we don’t need words to understand what they’re feeling. Sneaking into George’s dressing room, Peppy slides her arm into his jacket sleeve for an imagined embrace. George and Peppy briefly meet on an ornate staircase as she’s going up and he’s coming down. There are witty montages of headlines, or magazine covers, and fleetingly glimpsed movie marquees that cue the action with titles like “Lonely Star” or “Guardian Angel.” At George’s lowest ebb, his own shadow, silhouetted on a home-movie screen, walks out on him.
Twice, Hazanavicius makes brilliant use of natural sound effects, once to underscore George’s dread of the audio clutter of sound films, and the other—well, you’ll just have to go and see. Big kudos to Laurence Bennett’s shimmering production design, that so perfectly captures Hollywood’s Art Deco era, on and offscreen, and to Mark Bridges’ terrific costumes. And the sublimely buoyant dance finale—shot in one long take, the old-fashioned way—is all the more dazzling in that neither Dujardin or Bejo has ever danced before. But, hey, chalk it up to the magic of the movies, captured with such imagination and affection in this delightful, rewarding film.
★★★★ (out of four)
With Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, and John Goodman. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius.
A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes.