“The Artist” may be the year’s most brightly imaginative and purely enjoyable film.
It may also be the toughest sell. How many people, after all, will be turned off if they’re told they should see a silent black-and-white film?
And yet this movie by Michel Hazanavicius is not only vastly entertaining but also full of soul. Indeed, it’s that rare film that works at the heartstrings without feeling as though it’s being manipulative.
Hazanavicius pays homage to numerous sources – everything from “Citizen Kane” to “Sunset Boulevard,” from “Singing in the Rain” to “A Star is Born.” Yet what he has created is wholly original, at once a look backwards and an example of just how innovative a filmmaker can be, using the simpler tools of an earlier time.
Appropriately, his subject matter is the transition from silent to talking films. But he keeps his characters silent, without losing any of the subtleties of the tale.
His film opens with a scene from a silent action-thriller, playing out on the screen at a mammoth movie palace in Hollywood. It is the premiere of the latest hit by silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks-type smoothie whose trademark is his raffish smile and his sidekick, an expressive little Jack Russell terrier.
On the red carpet, he plucks an unknown from the crowd, a wide-eyed beauty and would-be actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). They mug for the camera – and she winds up with him on the front page of the trades the next day, which displeases the studio head (John Goodman), because it upstages the movie itself.
Peppy finds work as an extra and gradually works her way up to billed status. She even winds up doing a scene where she dances with Valentin, who remembers the pretty girl and has a moment with her that affects both of them.
Then a bombshell drops: the arrival of talking pictures. Valentin refuses to believe that talkies are anything more than a fad. He invests everything he has in a new silent blockbuster – just as the bottom falls out of the stock market. When his movie flops, he’s broke and without a job. Peppy, however, has become a star of talkies – though one who still harbors feelings for Valentin.
The rest of the film is about Valentin’s slow but dignified decline, as he tries to maintain appearances even as he is forced to sell off his possessions and memorabilia. His fortunes are being secretly followed by Peppy, who still harbors a crush on him and longs to help him as thanks for his earlier kindness.
Hazanavicius has created complex characters and an intricate plot that has the feel of a classic silent film, echoing the styles and societal mores of the period. Yet the emotions are deep and varied, capturing a variety of impulses with only the simplest gestures. The original music, by Ludovic Bource, is deliciously evocative, without ever seeming cheesy. And Hazanavicius isn’t afraid to incorporate other film music (such as bits of Bernard Hermann’s score for “Vertigo”) if it works.
Dujardin, who is a major star in France, is a find for American audiences. Strapping, handsome, lithe, with a killer smile, he’s an actor who shows great range here, whether embodying the regret of a man whose life has disintegrated before his eyes or transforming into the loose-limbed hoofer that Valentin can be. Bejo is also remarkably expressive, with an amazing pair of eyes and a rubbery physicality that works well for this can-do gal.
“The Artist” is one of the year’s best films and happiest surprises – a genuine work of imagination and vitality that broadcasts its love for the very form it so expertly uses.