Filmed as a silent movie (with a few notable sonic intrusions) and presented in black and white in the boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, "The Artist" pays tribute to the high style of silent film, with jaunty, debonair heroes, nail-biting drama and a meet-cute love story. Maybe more important, it's a wonderful reminder that film is primarily a visual medium that uses but does not absolutely require dialogue and exposition to tell great stories.
"The Artist" tells a gripping, if melodramatic tale that twins the riches-to-rags story of silent film icon George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and the rags-to-riches story of starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George is a swashbuckling Hollywood star — a grinning, mustachioed cavalier in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks. As the movie opens, he is premiering his latest star vehicle at a red-carpet event, and hamming it up on stage for an adoring crowd. But studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is already looking to the future — a future with talking characters.
Outside the premiere, Peppy (who is hoping to break into the business) accidentally plops out of the crowd of fans and runs into George, and their routine mugging for the camera makes the cover of Variety. Later, on a movie set, they are reintroduced, through a nifty bit of photography that has George dancing with a pair of attractive female legs that are visible below a screen. In the big reveal, George and Peppy are surprised and delighted to see each other — the camera flitting back and forth to show the sequential interplay of their reactions. It's the kind of camera work that died with the silent era, and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman executes it masterfully.
The nascent romance between Peppy and George has a doomed aspect. George is married to the chilly, withdrawn Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and despite being an inveterate flirt, he is not the type to have a fling. Indeed, George's two healthiest relationships are with his valet Clifton (James Cromwell) and his faithful dog, played by Uggie, a 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier. (The dog absolutely steals the show, giving the best canine performance in a film in living memory.)
George and Peppy are fated to cross paths, with Peppy on the way up and George on the way down. As the market for silent movies dwindles, George doubles down on the dying medium by financing his own picture — which opens against a talkie starring Peppy Miller and, more consequentially, against the stock market crash of 1929. Broke, isolated and forgotten, George slides inexorably into alcoholism and despair.
The movie taps into a well of silent movie cliches as the peril to George increases — and in so doing, makes it clear why these sight gags worked so well. The photography is always compelling, at times paying homage to the verticality of the epic movie sets of the silent era, and at other times lingering on the intense, expressive faces of the silent stars in close-up.
The visual jokes are spot on. At the premiere of one of George's films, his character is seen clearly mouthing the words, "I won't talk." In another scene, George is shown longingly peering in the window of a haberdashery, the reflection of his head fitted perfectly atop a tuxedo on display. The score by Ludovic Bource helps propel the story in a way that feels true to the era.
By all appearances, "The Artist" is a throwback to a time of transition in American cinema, but the movie's broader theme of a skilled artisan disappearing into the obscurity of forced obsolescence resonates with contemporary American life.
The surface-level beauty and novelty of "The Artist" will draw in the audience. But the intimate connection the film forges between the viewer and its star as he falls from grace is what makes the movie a classic of contemporary cinema, and not a mere homage.
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of four)
TITLE: "The Artist"
CREDITS: Directed by Michel Hazanavicius; scenario and dialogue by Michel Hazanavicius
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes