The Artist is cinematic perfection – a joyous celebration of everything that makes the movies so wonderful. Set during the end of Hollywood’s silent era, it surely must have been a labor of love for writer/director Michel Hazanavicius, because in this day and age, a filmmaker does not lightly make the decision to tell an image-driven story in the language of melodrama. He pays careful attention to the technical aspects. It’s a (mostly) silent film, photographed in black in white, shot in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1. It utilizes action-heavy music that’s intended to dictate how the audience is supposed to feel. The actors rely almost entirely on body language and facial expressions. Wherever necessary, intertitles will appear onscreen displaying vital bits of dialogue.
But The Artist is not merely a stylistic homage. If it were, it would only be a remake of Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, which had a lot of humor but little in the way of substance. It actually tells us a story, a loose revision of Singin’ in the Rain with just a hint of Sunset Boulevard thrown in. It has interesting characters we can care about, and because all of them are essentially decent, we don’t feel as if we’ve been manipulated into it. In its theatricality, it does not patronize or dumb down; it wants to make a connection, and so it does by appealing to emotions that I believe most audiences possess. There’s drama, comedy, romance, and dancing – all immensely entertaining, all done with tremendous heart.
Taking place in Los Angeles between 1927 and 1932, it tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film star known for his roles as action heroes and romantic leads. Just when it seemed his life could not be any better, a producer named Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shows him some test footage of an actress talking into a microphone. It’s a new innovation: Talkies, in which prerecorded sound is synchronized with the picture. George initially laughs off the idea. Who wants to hear actors talk? It won’t have a future. But not long after, major studios cease production on all new silent films. New young actors, who are perfectly willing to have their voices heard in a movie theater, quickly upstage their older silent counterparts. This would include the fresh-faced Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who George ran into completely by accident. In his dressing room, after saving her from being fired onset, he tenderly supplies her with a trademark look: A penciled-in beauty mark on her upper lip.
Although Peppy’s star is rising, George’s star is rapidly fading. By 1929, he has fallen out of love with his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), preferring instead the company of his dog, his constant companion and costar. He clings to the belief that he’s better seen and not heard, which is why he writes, produces, directs, and stars in his own film. I don’t need to tell you how the premiere goes. I will say that it happens immediately after the stock market crash, leaving George with virtually nothing. His wife kicks him out of the house. He begins drinking. Out of kindness, he fires his loyal chauffeur and manservant, Clifton (James Cromwell). He’s forced to pawn his beloved tuxedo and auction off his personal possessions, including a life-sized portrait of himself. Can this washed up movie star ever find his way back into the hearts of the people? Or will he completely fade into obscurity?
Watching Dujardin, with his strikingly handsome face and irresistibly dashing smile, one cannot help but see echoes of Gene Kelly, especially during the final scene. Bejo, slight but brimming with high spiritedness, doesn’t need to speak to let you know what she’s feeling; her expressive eyes do the talking for her. When a tear rolls down her cheek, you’re tempted to cry right along with her. Some would call this mugging, except it isn’t mugging – it’s the language with much movies like this communicate. If you take this away, you no longer have a silent movie. Instead, you have a film in which the actors don’t talk. You know the difference. In the best possible sense, emotion oozes from every character and every situation. This would include a climactic fire sequence, in which the most unlikely of heroes will rise.
It’s amazing how beautiful The Artist looks. Guillaume Schiffman’s Oscar-worthy cinematography transforms the sets into picturesque dreamscapes and the actors into the very embodiment of glamour. Just looking at the film floods the senses; you can smell the cigarette smoke and pancake foundation, feel the burning studio lights, taste the booze and the lip stain. It immerses you, not in another time so much as in another world, where reality is filtered through nostalgia. Speaking of Oscar nominations, I hope someone puts in a good word for composer Ludovic Bource, whose powerful score runs almost the entire length of the film. As long as I’m going this route, I might as well go all out and hope for a Best Picture nomination. I’m fairly certain this movie has the right qualifications.