Delivering charm over depth, but enchantingly so, “The Artist” celebrates silent cinema while presenting itself as a silent movie — a black-and-white melodrama with intertitles; mouthed dialogue; a dancing, swashbuckling, damsel-rescuing hero; and pantomime-proficient stars that include a vivacious dog.
Executing the novelty superbly while also providing emotional current, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has created a delightful tale of star-crossed soulmates rising, crashing and hoofing in an industry that, whether mute or sonic, can produce magic when inspired.
Hazanavicius, who is French, combines vintage styles, current technologies and wholehearted movie love in this serio-giddy concoction, which features French leads, English-speaking co-stars, Hollywood settings and old-fashioned romance. It’s sometimes silly beyond belief, but oh what fun.
Things begin at a 1927 premiere where mustachioed, confident Douglas Fairbanks-like silent-screen idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is thrilling the audience, both onscreen and live. Outside the theater, he encounters ingenue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) when her enthusiasm propels her into his limelight.
A photo follows. “Who’s That Girl?” asks Variety. George’s wife, glowering at the breakfast table, is less excited.
George and Peppy click big-time after Peppy lands a bit part in George’s new film. But then the movies start talking, and, remaining silent, George nosedives. His wife leaves, and he hits the bottle. His only remaining friends are his chauffeur and his terrier.
Peppy, meanwhile, attains “it” girl stardom. Will the bond she has shared with George prompt her to save him?
Cinephiles will recognize ingredients from classics: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo,” “A Star Is Born.”
But while Hazanavicius’ movie adoration shines, the film’s persistent upbeatness undermines the more serious material. George’s despair doesn’t feel truly threatening a la Norman Maine. George and Peppy’s romance is less moving than it could be.
Still, the film is a joyously entertaining, clever ride. Hazanavicius delivers the feel of a silent movie, a contagious appreciation for cinematic artifice, a keen sense of what pleases audiences then versus now, and numerous instances of wit, grace and joy.
The silent-style storytelling, in which physical movement and facial expression substitute for speech, results in fresh viewing for current eyes. Scenes of enthralled audiences remind viewers of early cinema’s transportive quality. A private moment in which Peppy romanticizes around George’s jacket is visual eloquence. Having contempo fun, Hazanavicius breaks the silence twice, inspiredly.
Bejo and Dujardin (co-stars of Hazanavicius’ “OSS 117” spy-flick spoofs) give their characters indelible countenances and overall vibrancy. She’s bright; he’s elegant and funny. Whatever the film lacks in terms of achieving deep impact, they sparkle together.
Familiar faces skillfully play supporting roles: John Goodman (as the studio boss), James Cromwell (the chauffeur), Penelope Ann Miller (George’s wife). Showing range is Uggie the dog, whose character progresses from a canine ham to an “Umberto D.”-style dejected man’s companion to a Lassie-like savior.
The Artist ★★★½
Starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, John Goodman
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes