By Janine Gericke.
If you feel wary of committing yourself to a 100-minute silent black and white film, I beg you to reconsider: The Artist may be one of 2011’s best films. In the spirit of complete confession, you must know I love silent films. Okay, I love all films, but silent films have a special place in my heart. For the past three years, I’ve reported on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (reports conveniently filed under Festival Reports). It’s a rare pleasure to see gorgeously restored films that others have worked tirelessly to revive. All that is to say, I was probably a bit biased going into The Artist. Watching it made me want to rush home and settle in to watch old standards like Chaplin’s City Lights or Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality. The Artist captures all the romance and glamour of Old Hollywood and leaves you wanting more.
Many are already familiar with Michel Hazanavicius’ work through his comedic take on the Bond formula in both OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), which also starred the charming Jean Dujardin. Dujardin is the star of The Artist, playing George Valentin, a golden age star with a debonair wink and smile. The film opens in 1927, at the premiere of Valentin’s newest film, The Russian Affair. The premiere plays to the Egyptian theater’s packed, black-tie audience, which is mesmerized by Valentin and his film. He waits offstage for the film to end so that he and his adorable Jack Russell Terrier sidekick (Uggie) can take to the stage and showoff for their audience. Valentin milks the audiences’ adoration, obviously loving his career and entertaining his fans.
Valentin serves as the face of silent film, and The Artist follows his fall and replacement by the charming, young Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo)—the very face of the bright, precocious talkies. Peppy is introduced to us just outside the Egyptian’s doors, just one of an army of adoring fans. She literally trips her way into the spotlight. Valentin is quickly taken with her, but little does he realize that she will soon become America’s sweetheart and his star will fade. With the introduction of sound in film, Kinograph opts to end all production on silent features, to make way for talkies, and to introduce a new batch of stars. This realization is not only heartbreaking to Valentin, but to the audience as well. It is difficult to watch someone lose everything and to give in to that depression. That is why this film works so well. Without ever uttering a word, we develop a fondness for this character and desperately want to see him back in the spotlight, which it appears is all that he knows.
At the heart of this film is a love story. Dujardin and Bejo have excellent chemistry and you can see their longing almost instantly. During one of their first on-screen scenes, the filming of Valentin’s latest spy film The German Affair, their characters dance together as Valentin’s spy character slinks his way across the dance floor to meet a covert contact. Take after take, Peppy and Valentin become blind to the scene around them, aware only of each other and dancing long after the director yells cut. Two people never seemed more perfect for each other.
The Artist is an entertaining film, pure and simple. It also happens to have one of the most talented casts I have seen in a while, with John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, and Malcolm McDowell, in addition to the film’s two stars. The director and stars create a gorgeously modern take on the silent films of a bygone era, and Ludovic Bource’s fantastic score feels like it could have fit with any silent film of the past. With gripping suspense and wry humor, The Artist more than earns its ticket price.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.