If you knew nothing of The Artist and sat down in a theater as it started, it would take a good five to ten minutes until you realized it was a silent film. The classic, Powerpoint-goes-analog titles might tip you off, but the protagonist, movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), relies on his body to speak. He watches his newest film from behind the theater’s screen, where on the other side a packed house of suited men and bourgeois women sit, gasping and laughing as if on cue. Valentin enjoys watching himself, and his ability to yield such physical emotions from his audience. When the film ends, he jumps onto stage to bask in the applause. His female co-star fumes in the wings as he delays her entrance by recognizing the film’s animal actor, his multitalented Jack Russell Terrier. He throws his arms in the air, makes sweeping bows and even tap-dances under the spotlight, all with that winning smile that says not a word.
We can tell this man is obviously full of himself, for one, but also that his talent, voice and, alas, image lie in his overwhelming, eloquent physicality. Only when Valentin negotiates with the jowly, cigar-chomping studio executive (a magnetic John Goodman) does he talk with any sort of regularity, the dialogue of which we see through interpolated text cards. The people love him, and he scoffs at the prototypical demoes of “talkies,” a noisy bazaar that would surely ruin the spirit of cinema. His alluring protege, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who personifies the American Dream that looks, dedication and even better looks will take you anywhere, catapults overnight to stardom by committing to the new technology. The talkies take over Hollywood in only a few bustling years starting when The Artist does, in 1927, and, with Black Tuesday and the subsequent Depression slamming the country simultaneously, George Valentin falls on hard times.
Director Michel Hazanavicius stays true to his goal and delivers — and through the Weinsteins, actually distributes — an actual silent film in our ever loud 2011. Iris and wipe edits and a consistent, throwback score by Ludovic Bource are what we see and hear. Thankfully he acknowledges his contemporary audience by playing with silent film conventions, adding sound or tricking us with intertitles that may have more than one meaning.
Watching a silent film in a theater (truly the only way it can be experienced) reveals small but crucial differences. For instance, only at the most defined moments do sound films ever drop to complete silence, and we usually feel quite awkward when the coughs of the audience or yells from the exterior hallway’s Icee-fueled children echo in these excruciating seconds. Bource’s score pulses underneath for nearly the entire runtime, but it is not a heartbeat, and there are little moments of aural blankness that may frustrate modern audiences but, if anything, just emphasize the eminence of images.
Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo fill these images with pleasing features and an irrefutable likability that will win over all movie lovers accepting of a little change. Dujardin channels silent film icon Douglas Fairbanks as a swashbuckling, thinly mustachioed gentleman with the screeching echoes of fawning fans derived from his namesake, Rudolph Valentino. Bejo’s Peppy Miller boasts elegance and spunk, and both of these actors have tremendous chemistry with one another, as it is this relationship that serves the crux of the film. Well, those two and that miraculous dog.
The Artist soars when it stays closest to the ground, in the smallest of moments. The delicate relationship between Peppy and George grows during the multiple takes, all spliced together, when he must dance with her for just a moment but fails to keep his composure after they both drift out of character and into each other’s arms and minds. Or when George sees an attractive set of dancing legs under a curtain and he mimics her moves until their barrier disappears and they recognize one another again. This comic foreplay champions the silent film format, and the two rise above any need for the stilted flirtation that Judd Apatow’s crew has brutally bludgeoned us now for five years running.
The film has such a good heart, and when it tries to prove to us otherwise it almost loses its wings. Hazanavicius milks the melodrama with bipolar sobriety to disrupt the pacing and overarching mood. For just another victim of the Great Depression, George should cherish the fame he held compared to the lonely starvation that 99 percent of artists suffer on the street. Because while George may be immensely likable, with that grin of gold, he remains self-absorbed and reluctant to change until the most extreme circumstances brought by those he shunned. He’s not necessarily a role model, but a model at least for the power of fortuitous friendship, whether from his loyal dog, butler (James Cromwell) or Peppy.
This year’s Hugo studied the same era, as well as similar themes from the opposite end, with sound, color, CGI and digital 3D. Scorsese knew his subject well — French film pioneer Georges Méliès — and could relate. Michel Hazanavicius here does not make such profound connections, but nor does he ever fall back on unremembered nostalgia. He has his own story to tell, crafted for an audience in the 21st century. It is Jean Dujardin, though, who connects with his character and the audience so completely that you may just sift through your brain wondering what old films you saw with tortured star George Valentin. They were black and white and without sound, but alit with a smile fused from the stars.