Silent is golden
A fun and beautiful (and Oscar-nominated) homage to silent moviesThe Artist is a fun and beautiful (and Oscar-nominated) homage to silent movies
The enchanting novelty of The Artist comes to us on a wave of Oscar buzz. Its subject may sound recondite—a silent movie, shot in black-and-white, about the silent-movie actors struggling with the transition to talking pictures—but it all works very nicely, both as a comic entertainment and as a frisky homage to old-time moviemaking.
The story itself harks back, in part, to a couple of chestnuts from the golden age of Hollywood talkies—Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and A Star Is Born (1937), but without the latter’s unhappy ending. The title character is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a swashbuckling star of silent movies who refuses to make the change to sound. His professional fall from grace is set off against the rise to success of Peppy Miller (a delightful Bérénice Bejos), an ingénue who makes a spectacular debut with Valentin and then goes on to stardom in talking pictures.
All of this plays out as comedy bordering on parody, but with far more affection and zest than that might suggest. Filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius deftly manages an unlikely feat—not only playing a corny old story for laughs in a way that is neither condescending nor patronizing, but also re-creating silent movies and their ambience in a particularly lively and engaging form.
Hazanavicius and Dujardin are French and so is their production crew. While there are several Americans and a couple of Brits in the cast, the production itself is basically French. The film’s historical frame of reference includes a few nods to European silent cinema, but Hollywood in the 1920s is its chief backdrop—a setting that The Artist evokes via replicas of Hollywood’s portraits of itself, intentional and otherwise, in its own silent films.
Exquisitely lyrical black-and-white cinematography (by Guillaume Schiffman) does as much as anything to suggest vintage Hollywood. Lookalike French locations help as well, although one of the big houses in the film does look more like a French chateau than a Tinseltown mansion of yesteryear. And the most prominent American faces in view—John Goodman and James Cromwell—look rather like European types here.
Much of the film’s special élan is concentrated in the lead players. Dujardin is a suave comedian doing variations on the farcical narcissist he’s played previously in the OSS 117 series of James Bond parodies (also written and directed by Hazanavicius). Here he channels the likes of Gene Kelly, Fredric March and Douglas Fairbanks with charming nonchalance.
Bejos provides a crucial spark as Peppy Miller, a frenetic Roaring ’20s flapper, all toothy charm and frantic hilarity. And Uggie, who plays Valentin’s canine sidekick (and nemesis to his estranged wife and former co-star), is one if the star dog characters of a movie year that saw several exceptional examples (Le Quattro Volte, The Adventures of Tintin, and the “rediscovery” of Rin Tin Tin).
Plus, there’s a special inventiveness at work in the film’s jokes involving sound (and talk) or the lack of it. In a dream sequence and in the climactic episode in particular, we get “sound-gags” to go alongside the customary sight-gags.