Infusing it with the romance of black and white and the hyper-emotionalism of silent film, Michel Hazanavicius has created in “The Artist” a reproduction of the Hollywood silent movies of the late 1920’s and early 30’s.
He’s found a terrifically telegenic leading man in French comic actor Jean Dujardin and a charming leading lady in Berenice Bejo, tapped solid American character actors John Goodman and James Cromwell, cast an adorable scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier, and referred to a ton of famous movies. It all adds up to a highly entertaining hour and a half in the theater, but eventually one has to ask, what’s the point? Is Hazanavicius commenting on the state of the current technology-driven movie scene? Is he attempting a return to a purer form of image-based storytelling? Or is “The Artist” an exercise in nostalgia for a past that no one in the theater actually experienced?
Like “Singing in the Rain,” “The Artist” is set in Hollywood during the changeover from silent movies to talking pictures. Flashing a Clark Gable-watt smile, Dujardin plays George Valentin, a huge movie star and all-around regular guy. (We know that because he shakes hands with the crew when the movie wraps.) John Goodman plays his cigar-chomping studio producer Al Zimmer and Cromwell his devoted chauffeur and valet Clifton. On the set as an extra is cute-as-a-button Peppy Miller (Bejo) who, living up to her name, does her best to get George’s attention. He kindly looks down at her from his starry peak, but she’s a nobody. Not for long, of course. Talkies come in, and George Valentin doesn’t want to have anything to do with the new medium. He doesn’t seem as dashing to his fickle audience all of a sudden, and his newest picture tanks. Just like in “A Star Is Bor n,” as the great star’s luster dims, the new one shines brighter and brighter. Peppy smiles, she sings, she dances…she talks.
Although there are periodic intertitles, it’s easy to follow the action, partially because we’ve seen this same story in many other movies, but also because Hazanavicius and his actors have mastered the technique of telling a story through pictures alone. The actors’ exaggerated facial expressions, the lighting that moves from bright to shadowy, the music rising and falling--everything tells us how to feel about what we see happening on the screen. Hazanavicius cheats when he wants to, and at the point that talking pictures become a reality, George puts a glass down on the table and we can hear it. Suddenly, we hear sound everywhere. The titles pop up with “talk” jokes--George’s unhappy wife tells him they have to talk, and so on. The director shamelessly steals the renowned breakfast scene from “Citizen Kane” to show George’s deteriorating marriage. It doesn’t seem to fit, but so what; it’s another example of Hazanavicius love of American films.
That affection is seen and felt and casts a glow over the experience of watching “The Artist.” Even if we’ve never seen a silent movie, we feel as if we remember a time when movie stars were glamorous and mysterious, and going to the movies was a more thrilling, more satisfying communal event. We’re nostalgic for a time we never knew and for an experience many of us now avoid.
Hazanavicius and his cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman had to shoot the film in Los Angeles on color stock and then transfer it because they couldn’t find the right kind of film and there are hardly any labs that develop black and white nowadays. Both Dujardin and Bejo had to learn to tap dance, a skill that almost every performer in Hollywood’s heyday included on his resume. That they did it all is a testament to the determination of the French filmmaker, but “The Artist” is not likely to bring back silent movies or to stop the transformation of the movie-production business. Still, it’s a one-of-a-kind pleasure. Sometimes, it’s fun to wallow is what was.