What a glorious movie this is! What a wonderful love letter to the cinema! And what a risk it was to make this film in the 21st century at a time when Hollywood studios would rather swim in safer waters then venture out and take a risk. Here is a silent film, shot in gorgeous black and white that tells a familiar story, yet breaks free of gimmickry and becomes one of the most touching and magical films of the year.
Yes, the film is silent with the dialogue featured on title cards to tell us what the actors are saying, but this is something that we get comfortable with pretty quickly. If you watch Turner Classic Movies late at night, you can probably catch a movie that looks something like this. Anyone in love with old movies can quickly get into this story.
The story resembles most of the great epics about Hollywood, most especially A Star is Born, with a little of Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Blvd thrown in for good measure. It begins in 1927, at a time when the art of the silent film was about the washed out by the advent of a new process called ‘sound’. Many of the biggest stars in motion pictures were about to have their careers obliterated by this new process, especially those who were middle aged – studios wanted young actors with young voices.
Standing at the precipice of this tidal wave of technology is George Valentin, a dashing romantic leading man whose fan-base mostly consists of giggling young girls (imagine Douglas Fairbanks and you’ve got the idea). He is the star of a series of simple-minded action and romantic epics, usually featuring his trusty side-kick, an adorable and ever-faithful Terrier named Uggy. George is happy in his life, although his wife self-centered wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) nags and complains that she’s not only bored stiff, but uptight about his female admirers. George is a very likable fellow, genial, funny, romantic, with a handsome face and a charming, ever-present smile. He isn’t smug at all. He loves his fans and, near the film’s opening, he spots a young wanna-be actress named Peppy Miller and touches her heart. She is smitten by him, and it is difficult for him not to be smitten by her. He gets her work, starting as an extra and, very quickly, her career is off and running.
The initial introduction to sound doesn’t ruffle George at all. Cigar-chomping studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is convinced that this is the future, but George isn’t too concerned. “If that’s the future”, he laughingly tells Zimmer, “You can have it!” Soon, however, he finds that the process is no laughing matter and he is out of work. Desperate to stay in the business, he makes a bold, and very foolish, move by financing a silent film himself with his own money. The product is silly adventure film that ends – prophetically – with George’s character sinking into quicksand.
Financially ruined, George loses everything, Doris leaves him, and his only companions are Uggy, and his faithful driver Clifton (James Cromwell) who won’t leave George’s side even when he’s been fired. Meanwhile, the movie bombs, and ironically opens the same day as another picture, a romantic epic starring none-other than new star Peppy Miller. His kindness to her comes back, as she tries to help him boost his defunct career.
The results of the story aren’t exactly surprising to anyone familiar with the formula of most silent films. What makes The Artist work is how much fun we have watching those old Hollywood movie conventions played out in fresh ways. This is no stale recreation, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius turns his film into something truly special, playing with our perceptions and reminding us of a time when Hollywood movies had a dream-like quality, before “The Method”, when the prepared theatricality of motion pictures made us feel as if we were stepping into another world. He has fun with the over-dramatic moments that underline George’s despair. He even has fun with the title cards, especially during one crucial moment when we think that one thing has happened it turns out to be something else – you’ll know the one I’m talking about.
Ever single facet of this film is extraordinary, from Guillaume Schiffman gorgeous black and white camera work, to Ludovic Bource’ invaluable score that not-only punctuates the action but also touches our hearts at just the right moment. The Art Direction by Gregory Hooper doesn’t try to find a realistic note, but tries to make everything look and feel like a set. And I must make mention of Mark Bridges’ costumes, not only perfectly period, but perfectly luminous.
Yet, none of this would mean anything without the performances, especially by Jean Dujardin as George, a French actor that I am prevously unfamiliar with whose performance here got him the Best Actor prize at Cannes, the Golden Globe and The Oscar. He looks and acts so much like a Hollywood leading man of the 1920’s that we forget that this is a modern-day actor in his mid-30s. He has a charm and a casual ease on the screen that makes us totally comfortable with him. We like him, we care about him and he makes the movie work.
The other key to the film’s success is Bérénice Bejo, as Peppy. She has an open face and a smile that is three-feet wide. She is charming in a way that reminds me a little of Janet Gaynor. Lost in her love for George, her feelings for him are true and genuine. Their chemistry together is something extraordinary. There’s not a moment that you can catch them with their guard down.
Movies like this are so rare. They inform us of all the things that movies were made for, to transport us to another time and place, and to allow us to enter a dreamy world if only for a couple of hours. The effect of this film on a true movie lover is not explained, it is only experienced. How effective is it? Let me put it this way: There is a moment early in the film, when Peppy enters alone into George’s office. She finds his coat on a hanger. She slips her right arm into the empty left sleeve and wraps the arm around herself. George comes in and catches her. The two share a quiet romantic moment so tender and so touching that, I swear, it reminded of why I go to the movies.