After all the hoopla and awards handed out to The Artist, it’s worth asking, “Is the film any good?” Yes, it is, and while it may lack the dramatic weight that we expect in a Best Picture winner, The Artist is certainly a dazzling film.
In the truest sense, The Artist is a comedy. Winner of Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards, the film is light, it’s charming, its story ends happily and by the time the final credits roll, we’re completely wrapped up in the whole enterprise. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it can charm audiences who have never seen a silent film and were hesitant to ever do so. This makes it far more than a one-note gimmick of a film. While being black and white and silent are some of its main draws, the story, the performances and the way French director Michel Hazanavicius spins together a classic film using old Hollywood techniques is really quite marvelous.
The story works as a pastiche of classic Hollywood fare. It follows a famous silent film actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), during the decline of silent film and the birth of talkies. After his last successful film premiere, he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an up-and-coming dancer with aspirations in the movies. Her chance-encounter with George lands her an extra role on his picture and it just so happens she fits the bill for the studio’s transition to sound. George, being the kind of actor used to hamming it up for the camera, is against the idea of sound in film and leaves the studio, thinking he can be a great artist on his own, but his decision bodes ill for his career.
As George’s star falls, Peppy’s rises. George stages a comeback with a personally financed adventure epic, but the film is a commercial and artistic failure. He is out of luck. He loses his wife, his mansion. A few years later he finds himself living out of a one-room apartment with no one but his trusty chauffeur (James Cromwell) and dog Uggie to keep him company. The world of silent film is dead. Or so we think.
The beauty of The Artist is that it demonstrates just how effective the techniques of silent film were. Although nothing about the film is original, from its story to its characters to the ways in which it charms the viewer, it really captures the vitality and power of silent film.
Silent films didn’t need words to convey the story. They had images. As Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) says in Billy Wilder’s classic noir, Sunset Boulevard, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” In this way, they were universal, cutting across all language barriers and immersing the viewer in a world that was truly unique and magical.
Jean Dujardin, who won Best Actor for his performance, channels silent film stars like Douglas Fairbanks to play the immensely charming if egotistical George Valentin. Dujardin is a physical actor, with an expressive and charismatic face that is perfectly suited to silent film. Silent performances are often criticized for being overblown, and while Dujardin definitely plays it large in certain scenes, he also draws attention to the subtlety of silent performances. He has a face you can read, which is essential for silent film actors because they have nothing more than an expression to play a scene with and the expression has to be just right for the whole thing to work.
Luckily, Dujardin is a real winner. He carries the film and will charm the socks right off your feet. Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller is also very good. Her character is the film’s heart and her spunk is infectious.
The film has a few gaffes here and there. The decision to use large chunks of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo in a key scene was unwise, making its Best Score win a little perplexing. Also, the fact that the plot is overwhelmingly similar to Singin’ in the Rain, even including a climactic dance, leaves you wondering just how powerful the film could have been if it had told an original story with the tried-and-true techniques of silent Hollywood.
But these points are nitpicks. The film works a spell on you while you watch it. Silent films couldn’t be improved by sound. They were the pure embodiment of what motion pictures were meant to be.
The Artist is a tribute to the apex of filmmaking at the end of the silent era. More importantly, it shows us that what is past is not defunct. The magic of the Golden Age of cinema is still alive and well. All you need to move an audience is a good story and the right images to tell it.