When I first heard about the silent film The Artist I was skeptical. The notion of making a silent film sounded gimmicky, and the premise — a silent movie about silent movies — all but screamed gimmick.
Turns out I was right. Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist is gimmicky, but it works very well because it embraces the gimmick and goes beyond that, showcasing the kind of tricks early filmmakers used to capture the imagination — and win the affection — of their audiences. The result — a funny, rich feature with exuberance and charm — is one of the very best films of 2011.
Strictly speaking, The Artist is not a silent film. As with the movies back in the day, you won't hear the voices of the actors — you read the most important exchanges on cards — but Ludovic Bource's wonderful score accompanies the proceedings. How good is Bource's score? He makes liberal use of xylophones and gets away with it.
Actually, the non-speaking actors rule is broken a couple of times in the movie — once in a dream sequence and again at the end, in a segment that is either a nifty statement about the changing times or a needlessly meta moment, depending on whether or not you're in a crabby mood.
The film focuses on two characters: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a full-fledged movie star at the top of his game, and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, director Hazanavicius' real-life wife), a charming newcomer. The story follows the rise of Miller and the fall of Valentin, who cannot deal with the advent of the “talkies.”
Clichéd characters and situations abound, but don't fret. They are handled winningly as well. You will meet Valentin's devoted trained Jack Russell terrier (Uggie), his steadfast chauffeur (James Cromwell), the easily flustered studio bigwig (John Goodman) and Valentin's dissatisfied wife (Penelope Ann Miller). All of the actors are spot on, especially Uggie.
While the supporting cast is terrific, the film rests on the leads, and Dujardin and Bejo are perfect. She has a million dollar smile and radiates enthusiasm and good will. Her character is clearly a star waiting to happen, with the brashness of youth tempered by thoughtfulness and compassion. She gets one of the best pieces of shtick in the film, when she glides her arm through the sleeve of Valentin's jacket and pretends to be romanced by the star. It's a remarkable effective piece of business.
Dujardin has a smile to match Bejo's and then some. He's character is self-assured — hell, he's full of himself — but his charm is undeniable. His Valentin comes off as sincere and disarming, even as we watch him shamelessly hamming it up for the crowd. He has a bag of tricks as reliable as those of his pet pooch. With sheepish expressions, wry smiles and gentle mimicry, Valentin knows how to work others, including me and probably you.
While The Artist is patterned after silent films, it employs techniques from other eras of filmmaking. Movie buffs will have fun identifying the various references and homages. Every else will just have fun with the newfangled old-fashioned mix of comedy and melodrama.