While some may be turned off by the concept of “The Artist,” the black and white silent film pays more than a musty homage to the bygone silent film era. “The Artist” is fresh and original and, above all else, a beautiful piece of cinema.
The movie opens to cheery tinkling piano tunes, the soundtrack to a melodramatic ’20s silent film. The music punctuates the pathos-driven comedy, the premiere of George Valentin’s latest film.
He is at the height of his career. Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) walks onto the stage as the film-reels end to thunderous applause. After the premiere, he runs into an aspiring actress, Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo), who he helps to get work as an extra.
He starts the film as the idol of the silent era. He believed, like many at the time, that talkies (movies with audio) were nothing more than a fad. He loses everything when he is booted out by the film studio head (played by John Goodman), who wants new, fresh faces. Valentin is replaced by younger stars including Peppy, whose career in talkies takes off. Their budding attraction faces the obstacles of their sudden position reversal.
Valentin is too proud to accept the talkies and insists on producing his own silent film rather than trying to get work in the new field.
Valentin loses his wife, his livelihood and his wealth in one fell swoop as the strands of his personal and professional life start to unravel in a haze of booze and depression. In a powerful scene, his wife Doris (played by Penelope Ann Miller) screams before leaving him, “Why won’t you talk?”
Director Michel Hazanavicius explores an awareness of film as a canvas of an actor’s face. His fingerprint on the film is the melding of modern perspective and antique techniques. Hazanavicius also developed the story concept, scenarios and dialogue. His direction and writing creates a clear and fluid vision.
The focus on emotion fuels the drama, and the idiosyncrasy of this leads to brilliant comedy. The physical humor is inventive and amusing. One of the clever homages to the silent film era involves Valentin’s dog, who had more personality than many human film characters. The dog is a cross between Lassie and Wishbone. The chemistry between the leads is romantic and amiable. They simply sparkle when the other is around.
It is a tour de force of acting prowess and range from its leads, who have the charisma and charm to carry a film while mute. The dual playful optimism and beautiful expressiveness of Bujo intermingles into an intoxicating character. Bujo perfectly shows Peppy’s transition from a hopeful wannabe to bona fide film star.
Dujardin shows his character’s passion for entertaining and the doleful tragic depths of an artist without a medium. He possesses a confidence that veers toward the egocentric, but also has a boyish likability, a suave, experienced star with little knowledge of life’s harsh realities.
There are many marvelous supporting turns, most notably from actors John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller.
“The Artist” is a timeless story of human frailty and the redemption from despair, but with a comedic twist. Both quirky and quaint, “The Artist” is nostalgic and eccentric without being mired in the past.
This film is a marvel, a masterpiece and a groundbreaking achievement, meriting the highest of praise. It entertains on every level, reaching the full spectrum of emotions and tickling the funny bone.