“The Artist,” a new film about old Hollywood, is a silent movie about talking pictures. When we first see star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in the movie’s film-within-a-film, a title card reads, “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” and so it is for the next ninety minutes.
Beginning in Hollywood before the advent of sound, when we first meet Valentin he is a big star, a screen idol who headlines action-adventure movies with melodramatic titles like “The Thief of Her Heart.” A chance encounter with a pretty girl named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) sets her on the path of movie stardom in the talkies, just as Valentin’s star fades, ruined by his pride and inability to change with the times. Soon the story takes on “Hollywood Babylon” overtones as Valentin becomes a Hollywood castoff. Will the former superstar end up like Karl Dane and Marie Prevost, real life silent stars, now forgotten? Or will he find the humility to reenter the movies?
“The Artist” could have simply been a glossy tribute to the silent age. The details are all there, the luscious black and white photography, classic soundtrack and the old school 4:3 aspect ratio, but the film is much more than that. Director Michel Hazanavicius has made a joyous movie that shows the tricks of modern day cinema aren’t necessary when you have interesting performances, a good story and chemistry.
Shot on Hollywood sound stages and on locations like the Bradbury Building, “The Artist” has an authentic look and feel, but it is the actors that clench the deal. Dujardin shimmers with charisma as he brings echoes of John Gilbert to the screen and Bejo finds the kind of balance of innocence and vamp that elevated the likes of Clara Bow from starlet to It Girl. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, they don’t need dialogue; they have faces! Luckily Hazanavicius allows their faces to do the talking, figuratively, not literally.
Ditto the other members of the star studded cast—John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Uggy, who hands in the pluckiest on-screen dog performance since Rin Rin Tin was the canine king of Hollywood.
“The Artist” is a treat, a film that forces the viewer to reexamine how we watch movies. Unlike so many of today’s films that do all the work for you, it allows imagination to become part of the experience. Every time you expect dialogue the movie remains silent which prompts the viewer to connect with the characters and the story in a much different way than we are accustomed to. In doing so it becomes one of the most engaging movies of the year.