Some films want to shock and repulse us. Some want to give us a cheap and disposable thrill. Some want us to admire the wit and savvy of the screenwriter and/or director. The Artist is a refreshing change from this, as all it wants to do is charm the pants off us. And if you have any soul whatsoever, you’ll end up leaving the theater sans pants.
Of course, it could be hard for cynics to take the first step into the theater, as the mechanics the film uses to produce charm are blatantly obvious. It is, after all, a mostly silent film shot in black and white, which lends itself to an anachronistic sense of twee. And the plot is only shades away from any A Star Is Born remake you could think of, a plot that is legally considered hackneyed by this point. But the film rises above this through imaginative directing, great acting and a powerful score.
The film centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film superstar in the mold of a Douglas Fairbanks. He is at the top of the art form in 1927, starring in smash hit after smash hit, making him a superstar. A chance encounter with a fan by the name of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) eventually leads her to a career as an extra in silent films. However, as the talkies come into favor, shoving the silent films to the wayside, we see a change in career trajectory for the two. The photogenic Peppy becomes a star in the world of sound motion pictures, and George finds that his star has come crashing down as the silent film quickly become extinct.
There are generations of moviegoers whose only experience with silent films is a clip here and there in a retrospective program. Few have seen a full length silent film, and only know the art form as an archaic memory of cinema past. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius not only celebrates this part of Hollywood history but also shows how vibrant and full of life the genre could be. In an age where every film has at least once scene where a character goes into one big, info dump of a speech to let us know what’s going on, seeing a film that provides exposition only visually rocks the senses. Pictures tell the story here, and they tell it in a completely captivating way.
Hazanavicius is greatly aided in this mission by his lead actors, Dujardin has done most of his work in Europe and Bejo (who is the mother of two of Hazanavicius’ children) had a small part in A Knights Tale, so they might not be as well known to American audiences as the rest of the cast. But they are completely wonderful in their performances. Both actors are charismatic enough to have the audience rooting for them even when they shouldn’t and are skilled enough to portray their emotions using actions, not words. It is impossible to imagine any other actor or actress in these roles–they simply would not be up to snuff.
Hazanavicius also fills out the rest of the cast with notable English-speaking actors, whether they be underutilized performers with great talent (John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, James Cromwell, Nina Siemaszko and Penelope Ann Miller) or familiar faces who are not household names as of yet but typically give solid performances (Missy Pyle, Beth Grant, Ken Davitan, Ed Lauter, Bill Fagerbakke and Joel Murray) each gives a great performance in smaller roles.
The score by Ludovic Bource should be considered a character in and of itself. It has the melodramatic flair that you’d expect from a silent film score without ever dipping into the realm of self-parody. It is a perfect fit for the film and helps bring the film to life.
All of these aspects combine to turn what might be considered a rote and pedestrian plot into something special and magical. It might just be the most uplifting film ever to feature plot points concerning descents into alcoholism and attempted suicides. There is a lot of talk about this film picking up some hardware on Oscar night. That talk is pretty much right on the money. It is one of the best films I have seen in recent memory. See it if/when it comes to your town.