Movies don’t get much more ebullient, charming, and heart-skippingly cute than the romantic comedy The Artist, which has edged its way into many critical best lists. The more remarkable achievement will occur if audiences flock to see this hardest of hard-sell concepts: a silent, black-and-white film set in a Hollywood transitioning from silent movie to sound. Created by Michael Hazanavicius, the French director behind the James Bondian OSS 117 spy spoofs, The Artist features OSS star Jean Dujardin as a washed-up silent film star.
It is Hollywood circa 1927 when the movie opens, and George Valentin (Dujardin) is at the top of his game. Every raised eyebrow and saucy wink receives applause from the enthralled audience at his latest movie premiere. He is a glossy, chipper, ivory-toothed, good-hearted cuss in the Douglas Fairbanks mold whose public adores him. George is the toast of Hollywood. He has a loyal, intrepid dog, a devoted chauffeur (a wondrously subtle turn from James Cromwell), and an unimpressed wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) who appears to be the only human being on the planet who doesn’t worship him.
But there are storm clouds on the horizon: A heavy rain is set to drench George in the form of “talkies.” As studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) lets George know, sound is on the way. In a hilarious harbinger of the talkie reality fast approaching, Hazanavicius’ silent film suddenly comes alive with the sounds of dogs barking, phones ringing, and George’s terrible realization that he still can’t speak.
As George resists the idea of sound, he watches a sassy young ingenue Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius’ shiny-penny wife Bérénice Bejo), who he first meets in the crowd at that introductory film premiere. George gives Peppy some sage advice, endowing her with a flirty beauty mark to distinguish her from the crowd. In a charming montage that evokes the Hollywood musicals of the ’30s, Peppy’s movie star ascendency is illustrated with a succession of newspaper quotes for the cinema’s next “Lovely!,” “Fresh!,” and “Amazing!” “Darling!” As Peppy’s star rises, George’s dims. With echoes of that oft-remade Hollywood tale A Star is Born, The Artist follows the paths of George and Peppy, who represent the diverging fortunes of two generations of movie stars.
Like Martin Scorsese’s film-mad Hugo, which celebrates the silent film fabulist George Méliès, part of The Artist’s allure is its pure-of-heart reverence for the magic of the movies. It doesn’t seem coincidental that directors are revisiting the birth of moviemaking in the silent era at a time when the very ideas of communal moviegoing and the art of cinema seem to be withering on the vine. Its packed-to-the-rafters cinematic references are evidence of The Artist’s film love, from George’s constant doggie sidekick — who evokes Nick and Nora’s pet wire-haired fox terrier Asta in the Thin Man film series — to the sampling of film music, including Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. Hazanavicius is clearly a man who adores movies, slipping in references to Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers, Citizen Kane, and Singin’ in the Rain while also deftly translating the winsome, sparkling spirit of old Hollywood to his film.
A sweet meringue of a movie capable of inducing a feeling of unbridled joy rare in contemporary entertainment, The Artist has some subtextual meat on its bones too. Laced with sadness, the movie has some parallels to our own times, which move the film from mere escapism into the realm of socially relevant art. It’s hard not to see some similarity in the transition from silent to sound film to our own rapidly shifting media landscape, of dying print replaced by burgeoning web and the careers dashed on the rocks of massive cultural change. And much as in the Depression-era in which The Artist is set, Americans today are suffering from the sense of despair that comes with tumultuous cultural and economic changes.
But those hard-knocks realities are not the quintessence of The Artist. What remains, long after the credits roll, is a belief in cinema’s power to transform, crafting mere mortals into stars and the despair of the real world into a kind of incandescent heaven.