Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman
I’m a fan of silent cinema. there’s an added level of difficulty having to try and convey a story without spoken word. In the early days of film, they didn’t have a choice. Once sound was integrated into movie-making, the silent film was shelved and rarely explored outside those dabbling in the archaic. There hasn’t been an attempt at mass-marketing a silent film in ages. “The Artist” makes a serious argument for its legitimacy.
More than an homage to an early era of cinema, “The Artist” perfectly embodies the strengths of the genre, while playing with conventions and toying with limitations. It’s practically meta: a silent film about the silent film era. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the world’s biggest movie star: a handsome song and dance man with a million-dollar smile and charisma to spare. He’s the toast of the town, beloved by the public and the cornerstone of the Kinograph Film Company.
Not everything is perfect. George’s home life is lacking. His relationship with his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) has deteriorated into an uncomfortable lull. He gets a little spring in his step after meeting the aptly named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). She’s an aspiring actress who has fostered a crush on George. When she shows up as a dancer in one of his films, the sparks fly and the chemistry is palpable.
Peppy’s trajectory is moving up, while George’s stock is bottoming out. The head of the studio (John Goodman) tells George that silent films are being shelved in favor of “talkies.” Rather than bow out gracefully, George decides to finance his own movie to try and prove the silent film still has a place in the world. Everything falls apart after the stock market crashes and the movie tanks. George is penniless and has gone from box-office sensation to down and out practically overnight.
“The Artist” is about the struggle to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. George has lived his life without sound. He is haunted by the prospect of a world which will require him to find his voice. The presentation of this film is amazing. It never feels like one is watching a modern movie made to look like an old one. Everything is genuine: the staging, the tone, and the cinematography are spot on. It feels like a movie from a bygone era.
At the same time, there are some unconventional moments. One sequence in particular follows George through a twisted dream where his silent world begins to come alive with sound. Small sounds at first: glasses clinking as they’re placed on a table, footsteps as he walks, the laughter of people around him. It’s a brilliantly staged scene that perfectly conveys his discomfort and fear with the change going on around him—all without requiring a single spoken word.
It feels a little strange when trying to talk about the acting in a movie that has no audible dialogue. Yet, there is so much brought to life by the cast. Jean Dujardin feels like a relic from another time and place, and I mean that in the best possible way. He looks like Brando, dances like Astaire and acts like Gable. There are so few opportunities for the kind of performance Dujardin delivers. In one role he highlights everything that made the Golden Age shine; it exposes just how limiting modern cinema has become.
Bejo is equally radiant in a role that could have easily devolved into something trite and meaningless. She radiates every time she graces the screen. There’s a lot of recognizable faces in the supporting cast. John Goodman feels right at home, playing a studio mogul with a cigar in one hand and a cocktail in the other. Veteran actor James Cromwell (Babe) brings a lot of nuance to the role of George’s driver and confidant. There’s also an amazing turn by a lovable dog who manages to give a more three-dimensional performance than the combined works of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Channing Tatum.
“The Artist” feels like a labor of love from everyone involved. I’m under no misapprehension that it marks the triumphant return of the silent film. Though I could see the benefits of more audio-free films. It would make Julia Roberts movies far more tolerable.
“The Artist” is another release steeped in nostalgia. Like Scorcese’s “Hugo” and Spielberg’s “War Horse,” it succeeds due to the devotion of the filmmakers who create something sincere without relying on cheap theatrics. This is a work of art deserving of its Academy nominations. It serves as a reminder of an earlier era and has an engaging story with brilliant performances.