Quit turning up your nose. To far too many people, watching a black and white silent film like The Artist sounds about as fun as watching grass grow. Despite it’s lack of special effects sizzle, The Artist packs a ton of pizazz and style into one delightful package. Directed with love and care by Michel Hazanavicius, his love for the silent films of yesteryear bursts through in every single scene.
It’s due in part to a charming, roguish performance by Jean Dujardin, who some may recognize as the intrepid hero from Hazanavicius’ spy spoofs, OSS 117. Here he plays George Valentin, a superstar of the 1920s silent movie era and a Hollywood celebrity in every sense of the word. Being at the top of the mountain has blinded him to the industry’s evolution, as it’s slowly starting to be taken over by “talkies”, movies with actual dialogue and a less manic tone. George is like the aging samurai going into battle with a katana while his enemies have cannons. The ball starts rolling as George befriends the appropriately named Peppy Miller(Berenice Bejo), a beautiful young woman who adores him and wants desperately to be an actress. As she works her way up from movie extra to full blown starlet, George’s career hits the skids when the studio head(John Goodman) goes whole hog into making talkies.
Partly out of defiance, partly out of arrogance, George decides to fight the shift by himself, producing his own silent films to star in. With Peppy a star fully of the talk era, and George fading into the background, the two seem destined to become bitter enemies rather than lovers. Especially as he sinks further into a deep, and ultimately very dark depression.
Dujardin is amazing in the lead, with all the moves, style, and expressive humor of the time’s greatest silent movie stars. Bejo, with her broad smile and ballet grace, she has the essence of a golden age leading lady. Hazanavicius recreates the 1920s with the care of studied devotee, everything from the screwball antics of his stars to the occasional dialogue cards. There’s even a cute little dog sidekick.
Much like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, The Artist is a movie for lovers of cinematic history, who can appreciate the loving attention to detail. The score, which drones at a constant note throughout until it resembles the music of a bad role playing video game, can be a serious drag. The film’s tone stays light throughout, but as George’s spirits dwindle, the story also loses some of it’s vigor. Still, The Artist is a film that demands to be seen, if for no other reason that it proves the old storytelling ways are just as relevant and magical today.