If you pay attention to the current cinema, then you probably have heard of The Artist, and are aware of the fact that it’s French, black and white, and silent. You’ve probably heard critics, friends even, pontificating on how great the film is, but if you’re anything like me there is probably a part of you that thinks the hype may be a result of people wanting to be into a silent black and white movie, for the sake of just really wanting to celebrate cinematic art. Which, hey, that’s a justifiable reason to laud a film, and as such, The Artist indeed holds up.
But I asked myself how entertained the populace could be by a silent black and white film, in this age of high graphics and stylized dialogue and performances based around story line and structure and arc? Are we still programmed to enjoy something for an hour and forty minutes with these limitations? Are they limitations? Does the absence of the spoken dialogue and visual graphics to which we’ve become so accustomed actually enable us to better perceive, without distraction, the soul of a film?
As it turns out, The Artist, in addition to being touching and transcendent, is an immensely entertaining movie with mainstream viability (as evidenced by how relatively full the theater was on a mid-week afternoon showing when I went to see it.) Offering a cinematic portal into a golden transitionary moment in the history of film and executed to near perfection by director Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is one of the most wonderfully engaging movies of recent years—for history of film buffs, sure, but for any layman viewer as well.
The Artist manages to be so many things all at once—ironic and whimsical, dramatic and comedic, visual and sonically rich, dark and light… in both temperament and color (or lack thereof). But as it toes lightly, tongue deliberately in cheek, through romance and heartbreak and success and despair, while chronicling a moment in the history of film, it remains, unflinchingly, a work for the people: Never evading or alienating its viewers, it’s a snapshot into the bygone glamour of Hollywoodland (as the sign reads during an early pan of glitzy Los Angeles) and the life of an uncompromising acting artist named George Valentin.
The Artist harkens back to the age of cinema when the 20s were high and Charlie Chaplin was king. Valentin, our protagonist, is an aging movie star of the silent era who meets his match in a burgeoning young starlet, the aptly named Peppy Miller. Their stars and chemistry align both on the set and off; before too long Valentin’s falls and Miller’s soars, as she comes to usher in the age of the talkies. (In one of the film’s many overt displays of symbolism, Valentin and Miller meet on the landing of a staircase, presented as a cross section. She is ascending up, he is going down.)
Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) and Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo) both have beautiful, expressive faces (she has one of the most stunning profiles I’ve ever seen) and are pristinely cast. Despite the absence of spoken dialogue between them (or perhaps because of it), their physical chemistry ignites the screen. John Goodman plays the stern and no-nonsense director, who can portray with a mere wider opening of his eyes a joyful glee or exude frustration and authority with a furrow in his brow. These actors could not be better suited for a silent film.
Despite the ubiquitous mood crafting music playing to every scene, the effective and functional use of actual noise comes with the dawn of talkies; suddenly Valetin (and the audience) can hear a glass dropping, the dog barking, girls laughing, a surreal dream-like sequence that evokes Fellini’s 8 1/2 (narrative similarities aside). These pieces of sound shatter, quite literally, the status quo, and soon Valentin finds that he is unable to adapt to the changing times.
There are selectively utilized speech cards for moments of dialogue. For instance, Valentin, in the waning twilight of his career, goes out to dinner with his dog and faithful butler, and Miller is seated at a table behind him doing an interview. She enters the restaurant dripping in fur, crossing the room with a flamboyant strut. She does not see Valentin, but he hears her (and we read her words) when she starts panning old, silent actors. Valentin, who was an early advocate of Miller’s and facilitated her rise to fame with his suggestion of a well-placed beauty mark (yes, the movie makes great use of cliché), is hurt and walks out after confronting her; Miller in turn is horrified at her behavior and this humbling exchange seemingly serves to save her from herself. She quickly endears herself to the viewer once again.
Valentin’s plight deepens, as he plummets into despair and obscurity, shadowed by the occasion of Black Tuesday, which is just four days after the competing premieres of Valentin’s self-produced new movie and Miller’s big star-making role—these films and respective careers battle for notoriety under the shadows of the country falling apart, and you can guess which one prevails. Panic, pain, loss, love, and redemption all ensue and the story, ultimately, comes full circle to a place of atonement and new beginnings. As John Goodman’s eyes gleam bright, the characters we’ve come to identify with and understand despite never hearing their voices or knowing the color of their eyes dance together (literally) to a joyful and illuminating end. And as the movie draws to a close, Valentin utters, finally out loud, “With pleasure,” effectively sealing The Artist with one perfect, final kiss. Bravo.