This silent movie about the silent movie era is luscious. The Artist, in glistening black and white, is a tribute to a bygone era when actors relied on expressionism or good tap-dancing skills to scale fame in Hollywood. Handsome lug George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the reigning screen idol of 1927 who does action and can dance, and has the world at his feet. Or so it seems. He is warned by many, from the studio chief (John Goodman) to his own dour wife (Penelope Ann Miller), that he has to learn how to translate into a talkie movie star. The filmmaker’s bogged down message is that Valentin’s pride gets in the way of preserving his career.
In the movie within the movie that opens the picture (very meta), he has electrodes connected to his skull while some euro-trash villains command him to “talk” and give away his secrets. But it’s just another Valentin movie. When he exits the premiere to get his photo taken by paparazzi, a very forward ingénue named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) kisses him just to steal the spotlight. “Who’s that Girl?!” Well it’s the lady who rises to fame with rocketed fan-following, in contrast with Valentin’s career descent once the rise of 1929 talkies take hold of the public’s interest.
But really who is that girl, I mean, Bérénice Bejo? She’s incredible! She winks the camera with self-aware buoyancy, and she says everything always with impeccable timing (through title cards, of course). “The Artist” is picking up lots of hype during this awards-bait season, certainly riding on the Best Actor award for Jujardin at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Why did he win? For charisma, mostly. Crossed-fired with depreciating self-pity that he injects into his character during the film’s second half.
His fame forgotten and money floundered after the stock market crash, Valentin sells and sells until he’s got nothing left but the old film canister of his favorite work. But one person has never forgotten him, and that’s Peppy. You won’t get a steamy love scene between them – the 1920’s had their entertainment limits – but the director, Michel Hazanavicius, has a dandy old time underlining the finer gestures that score their affection for each other.
“The Artist” wants to be greatly touching, and for moviegoer wet blankets, it will be. But I appreciated it most for its aesthetics. It has a similar look, as well as shared themes, with one of the last great silent films, “Pandora’s Box” (1928). Except it’s got a cleaner, less scratchy look, since film celluloid from that era could not be faultlessly preserved. And for the heck of it, Bernard Herrmann’s music score from “Vertigo” (1958) is cribbed to magnificent humming effect.
Co-stars include Malcolm McDowell, Miss Pyle, and James Cromwell as the driver. And it’s got a great mimicking dog that loves to play dead to hysterical effect. And at long last, the final words are priceless. Until then, “The Artist” coasts along with the assistance of sound effects, music and actors’ body language.
100 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
FOREIGN FILM / SILENT FILM / WINTER TALE
Film Cousins: “Sherlock Jr.” (1924); “Pandora’s Box” (1928, Germany); “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952); “Silent Movie” (1978).