There’s much talk about “The Artist” being a silent, black and white film that happens to have been made in 2011. This is technically true, but to describe it as such is to suggest that it’s an artifact or an antique. It isn’t. Although it borrows the exact style, technique and tone of films from the silent era—particularly a Chaplin or Valentino movie—The Artist is very different because of its position and perspective, which looks back on the silent era with fondness and a little mischief in its heart and comes up with a ode to those movies and their stars which is more than some stuffy homage . It is in fact one of the most original and absorbing movies of the year and if it says anything, it’s saying that the spirit of those old films isn’t as irrelevant as modern audiences may think.
Playing as a kind of lighter and goofier counterpoint to Martin Scorsese’s also wonderful ‘Hugo’, Michel Hazanavicius’ film is a straight comedy that eschews lofty awards-season solemnity for a good-natured levity that smiles defiantly in the face of that idea that great art always be so serious. As a follow up to the delightfully silly OSS series, which plays like a French Austin Powers with more mirth and less vulgar wackiness, ‘The Artist’ is nearly perfect.
Jean Dujardin and his charming, effervescent co-star Berenice Bejo both hail from the OSS films and demonstrate Old Hollywood charisma as the two film stars who find themselves drawn to one another on opposite sides of the cinematic sound barrier. When the movie starts, Bejo’s aptly named Peppy Miller is just a star-struck extra who catches a lucky break at the same time she catches the attention of silent film hunk George Valentin, played by Dujardin. As the melodramatic tale would have it, Miller goes on to be a screen goddess in the talkies—complete with fake birthmark given to her by Valentin—while the older actor’s star has faded over night due to his fidelity to the silent film, which slips right out from under him once the audience gets a taste for sound.
There’s plenty of zany contrivance and some poignancy as well—Dujardin shares many scenes with his little dog, Uggie, who on more than one occasion saves his master from self-inflicted tragedy, while Miller continues to follow her fallen friend, unbeknownst to him or his wounded pride. A number of American actors fill out the background of the picture, which otherwise runs as the Dujardin and Bejo show. Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin’s wife makes the comically frustrated breakfast routine sublime fun, while John Goodman is all hearty bluster as the movie producer who understands that the show must go on, even if not all of the performers can come with. James Cromwell is Dujardin’s faithful butler, sallying forth even when there’s no money left to pay for the sallying; it’s the kind of role Cromwell excels at and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this character is a relative or descendant of Farmer Hogget. These familiar Hollywood faces help ground the movie in the reality it’s aiming for. At the same time, there’s a dreamy, gossamer strand of the fantastic floating through The Artist that marries the historical aspects together with the spirit of silent movie escapism.
Djuardin and Bejo may get nominations—even awards!—for their work here, and they deserve it. The kind of movie The Artist wants to remind us of were films where the star was far more important than the story. Even if that isn’t true of this one, it’s important that the leads have that same kind of larger-than-life mystique to them. What makes The Artist special though, is that Dujardin also masters a kind of washed-up empathy that makes him real and sad, more likable more than pitiable, and Bejo is both the girl next door and the unattainable sex symbol, and when onscreen with Dujardin, just a love-struck young girl trying to help a friend back on his feet.
The Weinsteins would have you believe this movie was hatched from a Phoenix egg on the side of Mt. Olympus or something, flying in just for the Oscars, but it’s very much a piece of Hazanavicius’ career thus far andan evolution for him as a comedic director. The Artist is a sweet and wholesome tale of bravely moving forward even when your shining day has passed, and learning to turn to others to make it through. There’s not a pretentious bone in its body and the technology used to make behave like a silent film of the time is both imaginative and seamless. The way that the very quality of the film stock changes over time adds so much to the film’s structure without intruding on the tale itself. Consider how simple effects start to appear over the course of the film—coinciding with the film advancements in the story– and how this is employed with wisdom and restraint. The best example of this is when Dujardin wakes up one morning after hearing of the talking picture and realizes that when he puts his glass down, he hears sound. What follows is a comic masterpiece and my single favorite film moment of this entire year.
There may be more serious or important movies you could see this year, but there are none that so perfectly capture the pleasures of seeing a good story well told, filled with people you would follow anywhere.