Written and Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Run Time: 120 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
It isn’t often that a movie appears on the big screen that is so thoughtfully and lovingly designed, so perfectly executed, and so full of reasons why film is such a beloved medium, that it creates an aura of intense joy. Who would have predicted that “The Artist,” a silent film that pays homage to the silent era of Hollywood movies, would be that kind of movie, considering the synopsis. But “The Artist” is so much more than a sentimental looking back at another time, another place. French director Michel Hazanavicius has not only recreated the grammar and syntax of a silent movie in superbly accurate detail; he has also managed to make a movie to which audiences react with the same absolute wonder, giddy pleasure and emotional empathy that audiences must have experienced at the time, when movies were still fresh and wondrously visual evocations. I doubt there is a movie out there right now that actually elicits the almost primeval sounds of awe and delight that audience members kept uttering at a recent screening I attended. “The Artist” is a crowd-pleaser in the best “old-fashioned” sense of the word.
The premise of “The Artist” is similar to other movies that have reminisced about a time in Hollywood when silent movies, and the studio celebrities who starred in them, eventually died out to make way for the talkies. Movies like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Singin’ in the Rain” gave opposing strains of the same tune—one a death dirge, the other a spunky celebration of the new sound era. But those movies were talkies about silent movies. In “The Artist,” not a word is spoken; well, that’s not quite true, and that is all I’ll say. There are no sound effects either, except for two well-placed exceptions. All you have to spirit you away is the meticulous face mugging of the actors, great editing, and a sweeping score by Ludovic Bource. It doesn’t take long to forget this is all there is; it’s as though you have been transported back to the time when all movies were like this.
Only you’re not really, not completely anyway. There is an unspoken agreement between the audience and director Hazanavicius, who occasionally—and with great subtlety—reminds us that this is a modern movie we are watching after all. He couples a modern attitude with an old-fashioned approach with such elasticity that it makes the movie that more remarkable. There are so many examples of this judicious coupling, but one is so well done, it is worth mentioning. It is a scene on a movie set—a silent movie within a silent movie—and the hero of “The Artist,” a silent movie star along the lines of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, played to perfection by Jean Dujardin, must change partners during a waltz until he reaches an extra, an unknown actress he has bumped into before. The extra, played with zesty exuberance by a lovely French actress named Bérénice Bejo, eventually becomes a star of the talkies—a rival and a usurper—but we don’t know that yet. All we know is that they’re smitten. Each time the two play the scene, there is an awkward exchange and the director must cut and do the scene over. At the beginning of each take, Dujardin manages to recreate the exact same facial expression—a kind of cross between the smolder and the frown that surely made ladies swoon in the 20s—and his mugging is at once funny, artful and completely charming. That language has not died out; Sean Connery was a whiz at it; Harrison Ford gave his own mugging a smirk, and George Clooney bows his head to make him seem more vulnerable. But Paul Newman was the king; his smolder was classic.
The actor Jean Dujardin puts on that cinematic charm so well that he won the Best Actor Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. All the actors are fantastic in “The Artist,” but it is Dujardin, as the title character, who makes this movie sing. Who is this guy, and how come he’s not a big Hollywood star? The answer to that question could spoil the movie for you, so I’ll remain silent.
There is so much that makes “The Artist” a pleasure—the clever sight gags, the allusions to classic movies, the tap dancing, the flair for melodrama and romance. But in the end, “The Artist” is a comedy, and what better way to enjoy the holiday season than gaiety. In an era of recession and uncertainty, why not do what the folks did during the Great Depression? I won’t give it away, but trust me; the ending is a happy one.