Already the darling of film festivals everywhere, The Artist arrives on a crest of raves to kick off the holiday season in time to be justly heralded as one of the best films of 2011. A silent film from France about Hollywood? In black and white? I can see the eyebrows curl before the ink is dry. But get ready for a smash hit. Gimmicky but delicious, this is a valentine to the movies I promise you will cherish. The standing ovations it’s been getting are well deserved.
It’s Singin’ in the Rain without the songs or the hilarious voice of Jean Hagen. The year is 1927, before silent movies were about to tank, thanks to The Jazz Singer. A hammy, good-looking matinee idol named George Valentin (welcome a magnetic new force, named Jean Dujardin) is a big star at the top of his career. (Think Douglas Fairbanks cross-pollinated with Charlie Chaplin.) One night at the premiere of his new film, an ambitious little flapper starlet named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) literally falls into his arms by accident on the red carpet. The resulting paparazzi photos jump-start her career. What follows for the next 100 minutes of uninterrupted joy is a cross between the Don Lockwood-Kathy Selden (a.k.a. Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds) romance in Singin’ in the Rain and the Norman Maine-Esther Blodgett (a.k.a James Mason-Judy Garland) saga in Moss Hart’s classic screenplay for A Star Is Born. As her star rises, his career diminishes. Suddenly he hears sound coming from everywhere except his own voice. Even his dog starts barking. It’s a nightmare, but the studio halts production on all silent films to usher in the dawn of a fad called talking pictures. Withdrawing his savings in 1929 to finance a comeback, Valentin hopes this innovation will pass, but his silent film opens the same day as his protégé’s new talkie and the same time the stock market crashes By 1931, he’s wiped out, his wife leaves him, his fans forget him (think John Gilbert), he hits the bottle, and fades into the shadows of Tinsel Town history with only two friends by his side—his funny, acrobatic and forever-loyal Jack Russell terrier, Uggie, and his faithful servant, Clifton (James Cromwell), from the good old days. Cue the violins.
But wait! Selling what’s left of his possessions, his Hollywood auction attracts the attention of Peppy Miller, now the screen’s favorite It Girl, who hasn’t forgotten the accidental photo op that made her a star. Now it’s her turn to save him—in a full-sound MGM tap-dancing finale that leaves everybody cheering. It’s a familiar narrative, but French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius (a name I cannot pronounce, much less spell) pulls out all the stops, embracing every trope of silent cinema with a crowd-pleasing resonance that is fresh and satisfying. This is amazing stuff from a French director, but his obvious fascination with—and passion for—movie history ignites The Artist with a colossal entertainment value that speaks volumes in any language. Mr. Hazanavicius and his cameraman, Guillaume Schiffman, fully capture the mojo of the people, the age and the power of an emerging industry. The cast is French, but includes guest appearances by Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller and John Goodman that fit right in. The center ring is occupied at all times by Cannes Best Actor winner Mr. Dujardin, an unconventional leading man with the Gallic charm and insouciant charisma of a young Maurice Chevalier. The Artist is so wonderful that the audience applauds everything, including the dog. The director, the actors and the crew may be foreign, but when the forthcoming awards season rolls in, don’t be surprised if they become Hollywood royalty.
Running Time 100 minutes
Written and Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman