Imagine the audible groans when moviegoers learn that their local theater is playing a black-and-white, silent film. While modern film owes much to the early silent classics like The Great Train Robbery and The Birth of a Nation, watching these films isn’t exactly what most of today’s moviegoers want to do on a Friday night. This fact makes it all the more striking that from its first scenes, The Artist gratifies the ever-wandering twenty-first century attention span with something utterly present and extraordinary.
It’s 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star enjoying a roaring career, followed everywhere by his Jack Russell terrier (Uggie). Dujardin’s Valentin is a spruce cocktail of several classic Hollywood ladykillers: Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn. More than any of them, though, it is Gene Kelly whom Dujardin resembles most in his jaunty, Attaboy allure.
Young studio extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) thinks he’s the bee’s knees when she meets him by accident as he’s mugging for the cameras. Bejo is adorable as the saucy bearcat with a quick wink and fine gams, and it soon becomes clear that Peppy is not just some day-dreaming admirer. This flapper is determined to be a star, and it’s not long before she turns Hollywood into her own personal oyster.
When the studio abandons the production of silent films in favor of the new talkies, her idol Valentin meets the fate of so many actors and actresses whose silent screen charm just didn’t translate into sound. In today’s climate of downsizing and unemployment, it’s easy for audiences to relate to Valentin’s plight as he loses both his audience and his fortune. He goes from star to rag-a-muffin, watching helplessly as Peppy becomes Hollywood’s new “it” girl . As their paths continue to cross, Valentin and Peppy develop a friendship that is perhaps all the more heartwarming for its lack of dialogue. Truly a “feel-good” film, The Artist reminds audiences at its end that when one trend is dead, usually there’s another one coming right along if they’re keen enough to spot it.
This week the Orange County Film Society bestowed upon The Artist the society’s first-ever Best Picture award. At the society’s screening, James Cromwell, who plays Valentin’s chauffeur in the film, remarked that many of today’s movies tend to “divert” us from the story with big-budget effects and meaningless spectacle. Penelope Ann Miller, who plays Valentin’s wife Doris, explained that in contrast, The Artist’s simplicity is “its own kind of special effect.”
It must be noted that the film is not actually “silent.” Rather, it is graced throughout by Ludovic Bource’s original score (except for one piece viewers may or may not recognize from Vertigo). Title cards are used ever so sparsely, and with actors like this, they’re only rarely necessary, because the film is carried by the visual expressions of the actors’ bodies. Take John Goodman’s oft-fuming producer, the employer of Valentin and later Peppy. As Roseanne’s lovable Dan Conner, Goodman could do hilarious wonders using only his face and his beefy frame. It’s a real treat to watch a skillful comedian set free to use his powers in that realm, and it proves great actors don’t need words to tell a good story.
But overall tribute must be paid to the French director, Michel Hazanavicius, whose love for silent cinema gave birth to The Artist. Hazanavicius employs even the title cards brilliantly in the scene’s big climax to bring the audience to tears and then laughter. Keep your ears open in the film’s most arresting scene, because you will never before have heard a film audience gasp so audibly at a single, written word. That’s another thing that makes this movie really fun: in the moments when the music gets low audience members can actually hear the exclamations and laughter of the other hundred or so human beings around them. It’s nice. It’s nice to sit there in the dark and have our emotions moved, together. It’s a reminder that this is the chief pleasure of theater-going – to sit next to living, breathing human beings and as one body appreciate the talents of other living, breathing human beings on the screen, because no CGI monsters can entertain us like we can entertain each other.
Final Verdict: Lively comedy The Artist hits on all sixes with its feel-good energy, brilliant acting, and visionary directing. Taking a risk that audiences would embrace a silent film in black-and-white, Michel Hazanavicius renders one of the year’s best features.