Beyond words: Silent 'Artist' speaks volumes about classic cinema and what has vanished in the noise
"The Artist’’ arrives in town on what feels like the end of its preliminary victory lap. A best actor winner and Palme D’Or nominee at Cannes, the talk of film festivals around the world, named best of 2011 by critics groups in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and nominated for six Golden Globes, it’s the current front-runner for the best picture Academy Award.
Which means that it’s time for your expectations to be adjusted. Not downward, and not because a black-and-white silent film in the new millennium is an oddity at best and a stunt at worst. The problem is that end-of-the-year plaudits equal bigness in most people’s minds, and “The Artist’’ is a small, exquisitely-cut jewel in a style everyone assumes is 80 years out of date.
That assumption, of course, is wrong. Michael Hazanavicius’s love letter to classic cinema isn’t perfect but it’s close enough to make just about anyone who sees it ridiculously happy - and that includes children and grown-ups who have never come across a silent film. In the face of the noisy, neurotic assault vehicles that movies have become in 2011, “The Artist’’ asserts timeless verities: a charming hero, a beautiful ingénue, the wit and invention of a cinema that doesn’t need to talk, and the awareness that times and technologies change - and that beautiful things can get left behind in the rush to the future.
It’s a Hollywood tale, made up of familiar pieces: a bit of “Singin’ in the Rain,’’ a dollop of “A Star Is Born,’’ genetic splicings from actual film history. France’s Jean Dujardin plays silent film star George Valentin, a delightful popinjay whose name references Rudolph Valentino but whose career and persona are basically that of Douglas Fairbanks, the movies’ first action hero. (To add to the pleasurable confusion, Dujardin’s a ringer for Gene Kelly.) Like Fairbanks, Valentin combines athleticism with winning joie de vivre, and he’s exactly the same offscreen as onscreen: the king of Hollywood.
Hazanavicius, who also wrote the script, gives Valentin a canine sidekick (played by a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie) who’s just cute enough without overkill, and a frosty wife (Penelope Ann Miller) with whom he shares a breakfast table out of “Citizen Kane’’ - the distance between the two grows longer and icier with every cut. The film’s rightful leading lady is a studio extra named Peppy Miller (the meltingly pretty Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo, a.k.a. Mrs. Hazanavicius) whose movie career ascends as Valentin’s plummets with the arrival of the talkies.
This all sounds very inside-baseball, but the shock of “The Artist’’ is what a crowd-pleaser it is - how Hazanavicius has created something funny, comforting, and oddly fresh from the ragbag of pop culture. There’s a wonderful sequence early on in which Valentin and Peppy film four takes of a scene where they have to waltz across a crowded dance floor, the movie star and the extra falling harder for each other with each cut. Without color and sound, their emotions are so close you can almost take them in your hands, and that’s what sometimes seems to have gone missing from movies - the intimacy of two people filmed without artifice.
The irony is that the movie itself is artifice of the highest order - a re-creation of a vanished medium in a world that has long since moved on. And not even an exact re-creation: The filmmaking style of “The Artist’’ is more early 1940s than late 1920s and the mix-and-match musical score cribs Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from “Vertigo,’’ made in 1958. Canada’s Guy Maddin imitates silent film techniques more precisely in gonzo art-house excursions such as “The Saddest Music in the World,’’ but Hazanavicius is after a broader audience here.
What saves “The Artist’’ from becoming an empty exercise - what makes it one of the joys of this or any year - is the playfulness with which the story tweaks its hero even as it feels his pain. (Not coincidentally, the film’s at its slowest when the star is at his lowest.) Why won’t George Valentin talk? No one understands, least of all the grumpy studio head played by John Goodman with a big, fat cigar, or Valentin’s costar Constance (Missi Pyle), the middle-finger-flipping Lina Lamont to his Don Lockwood. Even Peppy doesn’t get it, although the dog does, and Valentin’s faithful chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell).
Neither, on some level, does the movie, which taunts George with sound effects in one sequence - they land like a D-day barrage on his ears and ours - and finally ushers him gracefully into a world closer to the one we live in. “The Artist’’ spares its hero the fate of silent idol John Gilbert, who died a drunk at 38, his talkie career in tatters. It’s a story of renewal rather than destruction, and what it mostly renews is our faith in a story well and simply told. By celebrating the old, “The Artist’’ has the power to make us feel new.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.