Considering the onslaught of big-budget and 3-D extravaganzas that seem to be monopolizing the local cineplex, The Artist is a decided anomaly. For one thing, it’s in black-and-white. More significant, however, is the fact that it’s a 98-percent silent film. Mostly wordless, its action is punctuated by intertitles, and by a lush soundtrack that adds to the story’s appeal. It might seem like a precious conceit, or a stunt, but writer-director Michel Hazanavicius knows exactly what he’s doing, and the result is thoroughly charming. Hazanavicius himself has said that “there are times when language reduces communication”; the absence of dialogue in this case serves to evoke a greater sense of the poignancy and romance.
The story begins in the late 1920s, when, as any film buff knows, was about the time the silents were going the way of hoop skirts, as the “talkies” captivated the public. Screen idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has the world on a string, box-office hits, a beautiful home, admiring film crews, the handsome looks of a Valentino, and a cute little Jack Russell terrier (a frequent costar) to boot. In a “meet cute” moment worthy of one of King Vidor’s silent classics, George meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an aspiring actress. Their spark is immediate, and George, whose wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) spends her days mutilating his publicity shots, proceeds to help Peppy on her way. George refuses to make the switch to talkies (insisting that he is an artist, not a puppet), instead focusing all his wealth and effort on filming a silent masterpiece. Of course, this being an old-fashioned movie, his film opens, and flops, on the eve of the Wall Street crash. Bereft and broke, George descends into a series of shabbier, more depressing apartments, still cared for by loyal chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell) but largely forgotten by the world. Meanwhile, Peppy’s star is ascending, but she never loses sight of what’s happening with her benefactor.
Hazanavicius borrows heavily from showbiz movies like Singing in the Rain, A Star is Born, and even Citizen Kane, but it works. Let’s face it, most movies are retreads of past stories, pastiches of plotting that we’ve seen before. The Artist is nothing if not a valentine to the power of movies to transport us into fantasy, to willingly relinquish common sense and the laws of time and space and just immerse ourselves in what’s before us. Instead of explosions and 10-car pile-ups, we are treated to the stunning visual of Peppy inserting her arm in George’s empty tuxedo, and imagining that her hand is his, fondling her hips as she leans her cheek lovingly into the lapel. It sounds goofy, but it’s exquisite and lovely—as is just about everything else in this quiet stunner.