The Artist is a tribute to the silent era of films, as a silent film itself. Just knowing that can make you think of the tired attempts of indie directors to go meta and failing to do so, and those of big studios to make a gimmick film by heavy-handedly adding drama and maudlin pathos to it.
The Artist is none of those things. In what is fast becoming a staple of French filmmakers, this is a film which explores a topic thoroughly, plays with the medium, and traverses human drama, all the while keeping a convivial, happy tone.
This is the most important film that got released last year, and also the most feel-good. The tributes are subtle and always playful, and you could walk away having watched a fantastically shot and staged film without ever noticing them if you chose to, and feel none the worse for it.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star, one who lives a great life, owns any room he walks in to, and is adored by thousands. In a chance encounter outside a screening, he meets Peppy Miller (BÃ©rÃ©nice Bejo) with whom he has an instant spark. It gets noticed and played up in the papers, netting her a small role in a film.
She is utterly in love with Dujardin, and as we see her rise in the film world, especially as the talkies start making their way, we also see Dujardin's decline as he refuses to acknowledge the importance of progress. Director Michel Hazanavicius feels indebted to the black and white silent films, and he uses the romance between Peppy and George to express that in many different ways.
There's a small moment when Peppy sneaks into George's room and pretends to hug him. He enters to find her, and instead of admonishing her, he tells her she needs something to shine on the screen, and draws a beauty spot on her face. Hazanavicius truly believes that all cinema owes much to what the silent films gave at the turn of the era, and there are subtle moments like these he employs to show us the same.
As silent films are shunned and lie in ruin, so does George. Peppy, in this time, is constantly trying to return the favour, always trying to show her gratitude, which I can't help but think is Hazanavicius himself, trying to repay the gratitude he feels for the cinema of old teaching him what he knows.
Despite the theme of self-destruction quite clear, the film constantly has an upbeat tone. Most of the credit goes to Jean Dujardin here. While Bejo is an amazing physical actress, it is Dujardin who owns the screen when he makes an appearance. He has that one-in-a-million smile; at once honest and full-hearted, and never present with any guile. That smile lights up the screen and makes us feel great, and is likely to be able to broker peace treaties in the Middle East.
With John Goodman and James Cromwell adding to the talent roster, this is a film that could just sweep you off your feet by these people who can use their expressions and body to act, never using a single spoken line. What is perhaps even more striking is how beautiful the film often looks. The black-and-white cinematography isn't that of the time, but very modern. The camera and lighting techniques make this look like an art piece more than a genuine silent film, which is intentional if you note the tone of homage that the film strikes.
With the old jazz and brass music that will pervade your ears and never leave, every scene in the film is as much of a delight as any spoken film could be. The story may be simple, and some moments too contrived just to show visually, but this is a film that is not afraid to show and not tell. This is a film that will be remembered for its mastery in photography, acting and music, and the triumph without dialogue that it is.