Film Review: The Artist

This immensely entertaining black-and-white silent feature from France is one of the best and most original films of the year.

I love silent movies—there, I’ve said it. Even though the silent era ended long before I was born, I still get a thrill from the artistry of great filmmakers of the period like Murnau, Griffith, Stroheim, Lang, Eisenstein and Méliès, and the incomparable comedy triumvirate of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

But for many contemporary moviegoers, the idea of seeing a black-and-white film, much less one without the sound of the human voice, is literally unheard of. That hasn’t deterred French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius from creating the first high-profile silent feature since, well, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie in 1976 (and that one was in color). The result is so disarming and poignant and such sheer, vibrant fun, it may alter many preconceptions about this “dead” medium—that is, if audiences can be persuaded to go by enthusiastic reports like this one.

Hazanavicius (the OSS spy-spoof series) cleverly sets the tale of The Artist in 1927, at the dawn of Hollywood’s breakneck transition to sound. The hero is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a dashing, vigorous matinee idol evoking Douglas Fairbanks. We first meet George at the premiere of his latest smash hit, A Russian Affair, where he entertains the audience from the stage and, ever the showman, is loath to leave them wanting more. Outside, an encounter with an eager autograph seeker, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the director’s offscreen partner), gets Peppy’s photo in the papers, which leads to a small dancing role in George’s next film—and a chaste flirtation between the two.

The arrival of sound brings a Star Is Born-style trajectory to the two performers’ careers. George refuses to adapt to the new format and foolishly sinks his own money into a new silent adventure epic, while Peppy becomes a fan favorite and a rapidly rising star of the new sound era. The stock market crash of 1929 accelerates George’s decline, which finds him not only losing his fortune but his neglected wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and his audience. But Peppy’s devotion to the man who jump-started her career remains quietly steadfast.

Shooting on Hollywood backlots and in L.A. locations like the Orpheum Theater and an early home of Mary Pickford, Hazanavicius and DP Guillaume Schiffman have done an absolutely remarkable job of replicating the look of classic silent pictures. And under Hazanavicius’ direction, the entire cast has mastered the slightly exaggerated but vividly expressive acting style the silent medium demanded. Dujardin, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, shows tremendous range here, as a skilled comedian, a suave dancer, and a heartbreaking tragedian. From the opening moments, you fully accept the charm and charisma that make George Valentin a major movie star, while his later scenes of emotional breakdown powerfully break through the silent screen. And the delightful Bejo is completely persuasive as a vivacious starlet who becomes a popular sensation; one particular early scene in which she caresses George’s hanging overcoat while alone in his dressing room is simply magical.

This audacious French production employs mostly Americans in supporting roles, with standout work from John Goodman as a cigar-chomping studio boss and James Cromwell in a moving performance as George’s faithful chauffeur. And, in another silent-movie tradition, an irresistible Jack Russell terrier plays George’s scene-stealing best friend.

No silent film was truly silent, and Ludovic Bource’s splendid orchestral score proves that throughout. (One key scene, however, is oddly accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s familiar love theme from Vertigo.) And though the movie remains uncannily true to the conventions of the silent medium, Hazanavicius includes a couple of startling aural “meta” moments that comment on the unique experience of watching a 21st-century silent feature. Audiences open to that experience will discover one of the most entertaining, artful and touching motion pictures of 2011.