A love letter to silent cinema, “The Artist” features the career of a Douglas Fairbanks-esque movie star and the effect the introduction of sound has on his career. In a gimmicky but brilliant move, the black-and-white film is itself a silent movie.
Jean Dujardin is all smiles and bright eyes as silent movie star George Valentin as the movie begins. He’s perfectly cast; he absolutely looks as if he could have existed in 1927 cinema. His slicked-back hair and perfectly styled mustache highlight his charming, roguish style and his devil-may-care attitude. The Jack Russell terrier that plays Valentin’s sidekick is adorable and a high point of the film.
Valentin’s chance encounter with dancer Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) gives her career a kick-start, but before long, the sound movies preferred by studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) leave Valentin on his own.
Valentin sinks his money into one last gamble, a silent film that will show the world why he should still be a star. But times have changed, and Valentin finds himself in worse and worse straits, certainly not helped along by the stock market crash. Meanwhile, the appropriately named Peppy Miller becomes a star, with her zest for life taking hold on the screen. Technology marches forward, creating opposite effects in the lives of these two actors.
The film is a good reminder of how the events of yesterday have echoes into the present. In the film, technology displaces jobs, and Wall Street hubris leads to suffering of many everyday people; it’s not hard to see why that might still have relevance today.
James Cromwell brings class and humility to his role as Valentin’s butler/chauffeur Clifton; Penelope Ann Miller is also notable as Valentin’s envious wife, Doris.
Given the demands placed on it, the score of “The Artist” has to be near-perfect and succeeds, keeping the audience engrossed despite the lack of speech from the leads. Dujardin and Bejo ooze charisma and chemistry, and communicate clearly without the use of their voices. While we’ve seen similar plots covered in films such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Star Is Born,” “The Artist” manages to seem fresh while at the same time delightfully old-fashioned.
Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius embraces the world of 1920s and 1930s Hollywood in recreating film as it once was. It takes a few minutes to get used to the format of the silent movie, but once you do, the world is immersive and irresistible. “The Artist” both pays homage to and recreates a bygone era in a film, and does so in a way that has appeal for all ages.
— Matthew Price
From Friday’s The Oklahoman
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell.
(A crude gesture and a disturbing image)