A silent film star is forced to deal with the talkie reality in The Artist, an entertaining if gimmicky little homage to early Hollywood.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a movie star — swashbuckling his way through adventures with charm, humor and a clever little dog. He’s at his peak when, at a movie premiere, he meets autograph-seeker Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). A few photos are taken of them mugging for the camera — much to the dismay of George’s wife — and the next day Peppy is picked for a bit part in one of George’s movies. There is an instant chemistry between the two but Peppy is still at the bottom of the movie food chain and George is a grand star who still feels some loyalty to his wife. But George’s early support for Peppy does help her stay on a career track taking her from small parts — “Maid” — to increasingly more important roles in films.
Meanwhile, George sees his fortunes fall when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) decides to turn his attention away from George’s style of silent films to the latest thing — sound. A new media needs new faces, Al tells George as he essentially shows him the studio door. George decides to make his own film with an emphasis on the art over the whiz-bang new effects that come with sound. But his film bleeds his bank account only to come out on the same day as a sparkling new Peppy Miller sound extravaganza. Then, the stock market crashes. George — bereft of home and wife — is left with nothing, no career, no prospects. He even finds himself having to fire longtime loyal driver Clifton (James Cromwell).
The plot about the transition from an old technology to a new one (and specifically from silent to talkie movies) is only one familiar thing about The Artist. The score, the look of the actors, the way scenes are framed — you can see and hear direct references to early films all over this movie. If you ever spent any time watching AMC during the 1990s, you’ll swear that you saw bits of this black and white movie in those black and white movies — from the way a person’s despair is scored to the comic bits with the dog. Even if you can’t remember which bits come from which movies (as has been pointed out by many, Citizen Kane imagery shows up in a chilly breakfast scene between George and his wife), you can probably understand the general language this movie is speaking. Or, as it were, not speaking, since, yes, this is a silent film with a musical score and title cards and big facial expressions doing all the “talking.”
Well, not completely silent. The movie uses sound in a clever way, as another color of paint in which to illustrate this story. There is a scene in which George, contemplating a future of sound in movies, suddenly “hears” all of the sounds you don’t hear in a silent film — a jar being set down on a table, the clink of glass, noise from the movie lot. George sees all this sound as too much, something that crowds out the magic of the theater. While watching the movie in general and this scene in particular, I found myself thinking about 3-D. Though it’s not nearly as dramatic as the difference between a silent film and a talkie (or, really as dramatic as the difference between black and white and color), you could see the movie business as currently straddling a similar divide, between people who think it’s usually needless showiness (and I tend to find myself in that camp) and those who see it as the future of a technology that must be worked with to improve story-telling.
I don’t think the movie has an opinion on 3-D but you get plenty of time to think about this issue here. You get plenty of time to think in general. The movie, while not slow, is leisurely — part, I think, of a movie style that walks you through more of the steps and spends little moments watching the characters feel, such as when Peppy, a little besotted with the still mega-watt George, plays with his suit jacket, sliding her hand through one of the sleeves and imagining herself in an embrace with him. It’s a scene that is both corny and a little showy when put in the context of modern movies but that works in the context of this story because these movies are more showy, less nuance.
Bigness is part of this kind of storytelling, particularly big expressions. Both Dujardin and Bejo are surprisingly good at making natural the wide-eyed expressions and very obvious looks of happiness, love or disappointment needed to bring their characters to life. Even if you aren’t spending your weekends at silent film festivals or seeking out 1930s screwball comedies, you can still get in the spirit of this movie and figure out how to let it pull you along.
The (for the most part) lack of dialogue, the black and white, the matinee idol mustache — The Artist is not some unsubtle indie film. You feel a bit like you’re watching the winning film from a Project Runway-like competition that made some of these features part of its challenge. But it is charming, well-made and a pleasure for fans of the early years of film. B
Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture. Directed and written by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed by The Weinstein Company.