“The Artist” begins at the time in which silent films were at the peak of their popularity, or perhaps it is on the outset of their foreseeable demise. One of the most prominent stars of cinema at the time is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose movies consistently brought in large crowds. And always with George (both on and off screen) is a sensational canine sidekick named Uggie, though frankly, that puppy has a tendency to outshine the owner. Dujardin’s appearance strikes just the right note of a silent movie star, from the timing of his comedy to his dashing and confident smile to his physical elegance akin to Gene Kelly.
Silent actors, especially of the physical comedy variety, are quite skilled and highly commendable performers in my opinion. Surely the subtle and nuanced performers in this current generation of filmmaking deserve a lot of respect as well, but you’ve gotta hand it to people like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In addition to the obvious truth that they had to convey the stories and situations entirely through mugging for the camera, they also had to perform the most outrageous stunts, keep composure in the middle of all the craziness happening around them, and still be able to keep the audience hanging on every bit of it. If one were to go back and watch the Buster Keaton film “The General,” it is still pretty astounding to watch the actor accomplish the daunting feats of wonder he did on that moving train.
Things are looking pretty great for George in the year 1927 at the premiere of his latest movie. The crowd is going absolutely nuts, gasping and laughing boisterously as they watch the actor and the dog get themselves out of a sticky situation on the massive projection screen. They are equally entertained when George walks out from stage left and starts grandstanding like he has the audience in the palm of his hand. And to be sure, he does. Outside of the theater, he poses and beams at the cameras with pride while dozens of screaming fans (Well, I assume they’re screaming. This is a silent movie after all) request an autograph from their favorite star.
Amongst this large assembly of fans is a beautiful young woman by the name of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who is just as starstruck as anyone else by Valentin’s presence. The odds are certainly in her favor when she drops an autograph book in the crowd, reaches down to pick it up and bumps into the movie star by accident. The next day, Peppy’s face is on the cover of Variety. Not long after the incident, she auditions as a dancer at Kinograph Studios, the same movie studio that employs Valentin. Of course, the two get involved in a few projects together and Peppy gradually becomes a successful young starlet.
Meanwhile, Kinograph Studios is switching the gears of their business in the next couple of years much to George’s dismay. The studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) presents a sound test to the resistant silent movie star, saying that the institution of sound is the next big step in cinema and silent movies are old hat. George refuses to believe that it will catch on and he doesn’t want any part of it. A few years later, Kinograph releases the announcement that they will be developing talkies exclusively, which means that an inevitable canning is in George’s future. But for up-and-comer Peppy, this signifies only the beginning of her rise to stardom.
Not only are the careers and personal lives of Peppy and George moving in the exact opposite directions as the film progresses, but both of them are influential forces in shaping the future of the other person. George turned Peppy into an overnight tabloid subject at his premiere, offered her a role as an extra on the set of one of his films and drew in a little beauty mark on the actress’s cheek to give her a distinguishing characteristic in the biz. Kind of like a welcoming tip that stuck with her well after she became a household name. When Peppy finally earns a starring role in a Kinograph talkie, it just has to open on the same night as George’s independently financed silent movie. Throw in the stock market crash of 1929, and you’ve hammered the final nail in the coffin that initiates the actor’s long fall from the top.
Movies like this about show business and making the shift from one technological paradigm to the next have been done before. Take for instance the classic Gene Kelly musical “Singin’ In The Rain,” which also dealt with the transition period between the silent generation and the talkie generation in Hollywood. And yet, “The Artist” still works. It is still a highly entertaining piece of cinema. Whereas “Singin’ In The Rain” was mostly a light comedy for all intents and purposes, “The Artist” begins in that direction but eventually gets rather realistic and dramatic about its subject matter. Some performers were able to sustain relevance after the innovation of sound, but the careers of many silent film stars went kaput when their preferred art form became obsolete. George sadly fits the bill for one of those people whose untouchable status crumbled as soon as sound took over.
French director Michel Hazanavicius, whose best known work prior to “The Artist” were the series of action spy parodies titled “OSS 117” (in which Dujardin was cast in the lead role as a James Bond-style secret agent), does a magnificent job of keeping the film firmly tailored to the themes and tropes that make a silent movie, and yet he also has fun playing with them and providing new spins on familiar elements. For example, most of the exchanges and dialogue appear on inter-title cards to allow the audience to get a clue of what the characters are saying, much like a lot of films made prior to the 1940s. I won’t reveal exactly what happens, but there is a great trick that happens with one of those cards that (I kid you not) was able to make most of the audience gasp at the same time, or even fall completely silent because of what had just happened. However, Hazanavicius also smoothly integrates sound and dialogue in with the narrative. Take for instance the scene in which George is exposed to the clear, crisp tones of the natural world for the first time. It all begins when he sets his beverage down and hears the distinct noise of the glass coming in contact with the desk. That’s strange. Then he wanders outside and hears a group of ladies walking and laughing. Even a feather gently touching the concrete can produce the explosive bang of an atom bomb, but when he tries to speak or shout, not even the faintest noise escapes his lips. It is all foreign to him. Unfortunately the sequence is short-lived, but I might have also enjoyed seeing a movie in which George also had to adapt in this new audible landscape where he is now the odd man out.
“The Artist” may only be using the stylistic gimmick to appeal to the sensibilities of the older Academy voters, but you know what? The gimmick works very well at the end of the day and functioned in service of a great film. As anticipated, a number of people will shun “The Artist” when it comes to a theater near them, spouting off a bunch of nonsense about how they dislike silent movies, they don’t know anybody in the main cast, or they won’t be able to follow what’s going on without being spoon fed all the exposition. The experience will likely vary from person to person, but in the theater I was at, I could tell that this was one of the better crowd-pleasers to come along in recent memory just by the delighted reactions of the audience members.