Effortlessly masculine and boyishly buoyant, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. In a scene from one of his films, George is being tortured in a villain’s dungeon, and he shouts, “I won’t talk. I won’t say a word.” Actually, he doesn’t speak at all; his dialogue is shown in intertitles. And he doesn’t need to talk. The year is 1926, and in just two decades silent films have blossomed from an arcade novelty to a huge, worldwide business and the supreme new art of the 20th century. What could possibly go wrong for George and many other mute idols? Talkies.
The popular hit of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, whose jury gave Dujardin the Best Actor award, The Artist pays eloquent tribute to Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the silent films gave way to talking pictures. With an informed, infectious fondness for his subject, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius manages to embrace contradictions and then resolve them with supreme comic grace. Hazanavicius is French, as are his stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, but they shot the movie in Los Angeles, and all the dialogue is in English — dialogue that, until the last scene, is never heard but rather mouthed or shown in intertitles. The result is a “silent” film (with Ludovic Bourse’s virtually nonstop symphonic score) in “black-and-white” (shot by cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman in color and then monochromed in the lab).
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So: a black-and-white silent movie: do you want to see that? If you don’t, you will be missing the fizziest, most endearing film in ages. The Artist is not just for geriatric cinephiles but for anyone of any age who wonders what happened to the cinema’s old gift for creating pure joy.
George Valentin (Dujardin) is a full-service silent-screen star: action hero and glamour boy, every man’s ideal and every lady’s crush. The blithe spirit of romantic heroism, he bounds through his adventure scenarios flashing the grandly confident grin of the great ’20s swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks — and of Gene Kelly, who borrowed much of the Fairbanks élan for his character in Singin’ in the Rain, that other superb homage to Hollywood in the handover from silents to talkies. George is one of the industry’s most popular icons, the pride and piggy bank of Kinograph Studios boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman).
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Peppy Miller (Bejo) is a young flapper with dreams of stardom. Breaking the line at the premiere of George’s film, she accidentally bumps into him — the movies’ jazzier future, colliding with its radiant present, soon to be its past. He smiles, she twitters, and the next day the newspapers are headlining, “Who’s That Girl?” Soon enough Peppy will be the It Girl of movies, a grinning mix of silent comediennes Marion Davies and Clara Bow, with a premonition of Ginger Rogers. She has just that youthful verve that the movies will need when they start talking, and sassy-mouthed comedies replace some of the sentimental melodramas of the silent era.
For now, though, she is happy to secure a job as an extra in George’s next picture. Seeing Peppy’s dancing legs behind a half-raised curtain, George imitates her steps. In a scene set in a dance hall, he blows five takes just so he can keep returning to Peppy as his partner. She sneaks into his dressing room and, in a lovely moment borrowed from Janet Gaynor’s silent romantic classic 7th Heaven, she slips her arm into one of his jackets and imagines that he is caressing her. When George walks in, he tells her that every star needs a trademark and dabs a beauty spot on her face. It will become her visual symbol as she rises to fame, even as George’s dazzling smile freezes when his stardom dims to obscurity. She is a comic Garbo to his once-proud, now-passé John Gilbert.
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Hazanavicius, best known for the OSS 117 spy spoofs starring Dujardin and Bejo, began his filmmaking career by co-directing a pastiche film, La classe américaine, which told a story using only clips from 30 years of Warner Bros. talkies. But the challenge he set himself here is even more audacious. Boasting a wit in story construction worthy of Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, the movie sets itself impossible goals and keeps meeting and exceeding them. A clever premise that could be nothing more than an idea for a comedy skit — and was, brilliantly, on Your Show of Shows, when Sid Caesar played a silent-film hero with a falsetto voice — is magnificently sustained.
No two stars could be more charming; and Dujardin expresses with astounding subtlety the emotional arc of a man sliding from the world’s rapturous acceptance to ignominy and anonymity. Bejo embodies the vitality of both her character’s nickname and the more modern sass of the early-1930s pre-Code movies. James Cromwell is stalwart and sensitive in the role of the star’s loyal servant; and Uggy, as George’s pet terrier, proves as resourceful a friend as Tintin’s Snowy. The pearly cinematography (darkening as George’s life starts to go black) and careful production and costume design put spectators instantly and deeply into this historical fantasy world.
Beyond its craftiness and impeccable craft, the film sparks a warm connection with the viewer. Like a smiling cavalier swinging into view to rescue an imperiled maiden, The Artist brings salvation to melancholy movie lovers. For here is that rare film indeed that offers pleasure beyond words.
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