[This is a re-print of my review from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. The Artist opens today in limited release.]
We owe a debt of gratitude to silent films. That may seem like an obvious statement but today the films of that era are considered quaint, and to an extent they are. The progress of cinema is to create an imitation of life and the world has sound. But what if it didn’t? What if the real-world was a silent movie and those who had thrived in that environment had their existence disrupted by the cacophony of noise and progress? Michel Hazanavicius‘ The Artist explores this idea but never in the weighty, heavy-handed manner. It’s a silent movie about a silent movie star but rather than coming off as self-indulgent and irritatingly meta, The Artist is always playful with its conceit. Its light-hearted attitude, thoughtful subtext, and a magnificent performance from star Jean Dujardin, makes for a engaging and uplifting love letter to silent cinema.
George Valentin (Dujardin) is a silent movie star but he speaks volumes with his exaggerated expressions, irrepressible charm, and a smile that melts the hearts of men and women alike. Outside the premiere of his latest film, he bumps into aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). It’s a chance meeting, but there’s a spark between them and it lands her on the front page of Variety. She starts out as a chorus girl in Valentin’s next film, and the spark between them continues to burn (but in the cute, production-code kind of way). Later, she sneaks into his dressing room and pretends they’re embracing, only to have him discover her in the midst of her reverie. Rather than kick her out, he explains that she’ll need something to help her stand apart if she wants to be a star and he places a beauty mark above her upper lip.
It’s a subtle but brilliant statement of silent cinema (Valentin)’s influence on cinema’s future (Peppy), namely the arrival of talkies. When the studio head (John Goodman) explains to George that the studio will only be doing sound pictures from now on, Valentin laughs it off and calls it a fad. He proclaims he’ll make his own silent movies and as he’s walking out of the chairman’s office, he notices a poster highlighting the studio’s shining new faces. Among them is Peppy, who has worked her way up from bit player to star. Later, as Valentin’s fortunes continue to decline and Peppy’s star continues to rise, he overhears her during an interview at a restaurant and bitterly mocks her statement that the old films have made way for her generation.
Silent films “making way” for the future is the important statement at the heart of the movie. The Artist doesn’t say silent cinema “gave way” or “got pushed aside” for talkies. They made the way. At first Valentin takes this as an insult but throughout the film we see that Peppy wants to repay the Valentin for her success just as Hazanavicius wants to thank the silent era for everything that has come since. We could not have gotten to where we are without the ones who came before. Because of the film’s approach comes not from mockery but out of gratitude, making The Artist as a silent film is a fitting tribute.
But Hazanavicius knows how pay his respect and still have some fun. Like his previous film with Dujardin, OSS 177: Cairo, Nest of Spies, Hazanavicius plays with the genre’s conventions and style but he’s not out to tear them down. But while OSS 117 is more on the side of parody, The Artist is a good-natured, gentle poke. It’s the difference between calling something silly and calling it stupid. That’s why when Hazanavicius puts signs like “Quiet on the Set!” and “Silence Behind the Screen!”, it’s a wink to the audience but always as a way to celebrate silent film and not his own cleverness.
The film’s charm is also greatly aided by Dujardin and Valentin’s adorable dog. Dujardin has one of the most winning smiles in the history of cinema and perhaps in the history of mankind. It’s between a full smile and a grin, it lights up a room, it’s goofy with just the slightest hint of cockiness, and it could probably cure most diseases. It’s the smile he flashes in OSS but it works ten-fold in a movie where the performances live on facial expressions and body language. But Dudjardin’s performance goes beyond just the most winning smile of all-time. As Valentin continues to lose his confidence and his identity, Dujardin delivers the drama and pathos just as well as he does the comedy. But as funny and charming as Dujardin can be, he’s upstaged by the adorable dog. It’s not his fault. There is nothing in this world that can upstage an adorable dog, especially one who can do tricks.
Thankfully, The Artist doesn’t have to rely on the shoulders of a cuddly, furry co-star. There are moments where the movie drags, but those moments are few and far between. A minor shortcoming such as that is no great detriment, especially when the film has such wonderful performances, bewitching cinematography, thoughtful direction, and a delightful sense of humor. The Artist pays modern cinema’s debt to the silent era and does so with a big, loving grin on its face.