In 1927 a new fad was sweeping the film industry: Talking Pictures. You may have seen one or two if you’ve been to a movie in the past 84 years.
With the advent of the new technology, an entire industry fell to the wayside. Silent film actors and actresses became the cassette tapes of their times, cast into obscurity seemingly overnight.
In French film The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117) chronicles the rise of talkies in a black-and-white film that features no dialog until the last 40 seconds.
It sounds daunting, but it’s delightful.
The film follows silent movie icon George Valentin (Jean Dujardin: Little White Lies), a Valentino-esque star known for his charm and daring. Followed everywhere by his adorably trained terrier Uggy, Valentin is at his happiest performing for his adoring fans and soaking in their undying love.
He has to drink in their love, since he goes home every night to shrewish wife (Penelope Ann Miller: Flipped) whose only entertainment is defacing his publicity photos.
No matter, he’s got Uggy to talk to.
During the filming of his latest silent spy thriller, Valentin meets charming extra — and Valentin super fan — Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo: What Love Means). He shares a dance and a few fraught moments with the charming Peppy, but fate and the studio system force them to go their separate ways.
When his producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman: Red State) comes to him with the idea of making a talkie, Valentin laughs. It’s a silly fad to him. You know, like the iPod.
Zimmer disagrees and terminates Valentin’s contract. It’s time to start a new era in filmmaking and the studio needs new stars to do it.
New stars like up-and-comer Peppy Miller
Incensed, Valentin decides to make his own silent movie to prove his fans won’t desert him. He sinks all his money into creating a jungle epic. But Valentin is more concerned with getting drunk than getting publicity, and the film crashes along with the stock market.
Valentin is now living his nightmare: he’s alone and un-admired. Except for Uggy.
Peppy, on the other hand, is living the dream. She’s used advice from Valentine to make herself one of the biggest stars of the 1930s. She has fame, fortune and fans. But she still thinks of the silent actor she loved all those years ago. She helplessly watches from afar as Valentin sinks further into alcoholism, depression and poverty.
If it’s starting to sound like A Star is Born, fear not. This is a movie about Hollywood, and Hollywood loves a happy ending.
It’s a rarity to build a great film around a gimmick. So it’s surprising just how effortlessly The Artist handles its silent movie conceit.
Though the dialog is sparse, Hazanavicius uses sound brilliantly. In one tense sequence, Valentin begins to hear ambient noise — from glass clinks to street traffic — and is driven mad by the cacophony.
Filmed in the traditionally square aspect ratio of silent movies, The Artist celebrates the history of classic film. Instead of subtitles we get the occasional text card. Film buffs will thrill at counting the references to other black-and-white classics. Especially compelling is a send up to Citizen Kane’s famed breakfast montage, where time passes in the life of an unhappy couple as they ignore each other over coffee and toast.
The real revelation of The Artist, is the performance from Dujardin. With a Gene Kelly smile and Frederic March’s gravitas, Dujardin seems to belong to a bygone era of dashing men more comfortable in tuxedos and top hats than jeans and T-shirts. It’s Dujardin’s mixture of charm and arrogance that keeps you rooting for Valentin.
The Artist is what all great filmmaking is about: A solid story, winning performances and an artistry that keeps audiences visually and emotionally stimulated. Oh, and it has a cute dog, too.
Great Drama • PG-13 • 100 mins.