Michel Hazanavicius’ film is essentially a stunt, but an expertly executed one that’s immensely enjoyable, especially for movie buffs. It’s a black-and-white, silent (or at least almost wordless) picture, complete with inter-titles and even shown in the appropriate aspect ratio. And in narrative terms it’s a clever amalgam of “A Star is Born” and “Singin’ In the Rain”—with allusions to plenty of other old movies tossed in for good measure.
The plot centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks-style matinee idol who’s made a series of smash hits for Hollywood producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), all co-starring his partner, a wonderfully expressive Jack Russell terrier. George is also a good sport, and when his appearance at a premiere is upstaged by a fan, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), he takes it in stride. The fame her unscheduled appearance brings Peppy leads to her breaking into films herself just as the craze for “talkies” hits. George, scornful of the new fad, breaks with Zimmer and sinks his fortune into a vanity project, a jungle adventure he produces and directs as well as starring in. It flops just as Peppy’s newest turns into a big hit, and the stock market crash breaks him (and helps destroy his marriage). He’s reduced to living in a cheap flat, with only his pooch and his faithful butler Clifton (James Cromwell)—who happily goes on serving him without pay—as companions. And in his desperation he comes close to ending it all.
Happily Peppy, who’s been besotted with George ever since he befriended her at the premiere, steps in to rescue him personally and professionally, contriving a way to have him win acceptance in the newfangled medium of sound movies. His triumphant return culminates in a vocal gag that explains why he was so reluctant to go into talkies in the first place. It’s a joke far superior to the one for Marcel Marceau that Mel Brooks came up with to break the quiet of “Silent Movie.”
But in spite of the premise, “The Artist” isn’t really silent at all. To be sure, it mimics the style and look of Hollywood’s pre-talkies. But it employs sound for effect at important moments—as in a “dream” sequence when Valentin finds himself assaulted by ambient noise while he can’t emit even a whisper. More important, there’s constant musical accompaniment, with a score by Ludovic Bource that happily apes the live ones often played in theatres of the twenties, supplemented by snatches of “found” music, most notably a significant swath of Bernard Herrmann’s luxuriant “Vertigo” love theme toward the close.
But that’s just part of Hazanavicius’ clever sleight-of-hand throughout the film. “The Artist” isn’t really a replica of a real silent movie at all; it’s a heightened, post-modern re-imagining of silent film that comments wittily on its conventions while going beyond them. So its visual references aren’t just to pictures from the pre-talkie era: it also calls up dance sequences from Busby Berkeley musicals and other iconic images as well (the deterioration of Valentin’s marriage is portrayed in a dinner-table montage right out of “Citizen Kane”)—and the use of Herrmann’s music deliberately sweeps the knowledgeable viewer into a much later filmmaking period. The result is a picture that’s a love-letter not merely to silent movies, but to the entire history of Hollywood from the twenties to the fifties. And while you don’t need to be a student of that history to enjoy it, the ability to catch the references makes it all the more fun.
And while you have to appreciate the skill with which the director and his crew (particularly cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman) have done their job, you also have to admire how exuberantly the cast throws itself into the proceedings. Dujardin is the standout, strutting and smiling like a million bucks in the early reels and going through melodramatic paroxysms of angst in the latter ones before exhibiting his terpsichorean talent at the close. But Bejo provides able support with a performance that certainly embodies her character’s name, and both Goodman and Cromwell contribute nifty supporting turns. And one can’t omit mention of the pooch—it’s been a fine year for doggie co-stars (think of “Beginners,” not to mention “Tintin”)—but this picture features one of the best.
It’s easy to overpraise “The Artist,” which is really just a lark. But its such a nimble, exuberant lark that it’s also hard not to.