It may seem astonishing that a black-and-white silent film, made by a French director with a nearly unpronounceable last name (Michel Hazanavicius) and starring two French actors that no one in the U.S. has ever heard of (Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo) would be the frontrunner to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
To which I say: See the film.
Because, truly, once you see The Artist, it will all be clear. It’s made with such visual élan, such an obvious love for the medium, such joie, such wit—it’s about as irresistible as cinema gets.
When we first meet George Valentin (Dujardin), he’s a Hollywood silent film star along the lines of a Douglas Fairbanks (with a little touch of Gene Kelly thrown in). He’s almost drunk on his own swashbuckling charm—but who can blame him? Barrel-chested, light on his feet, possessing a quick, roguish smile—audiences can’t get enough of George, or his devoted sidekick, a scrappy Jack Russell terrier. (In fact, the only person who can get enough of him, it seems, is his put-upon wife, played with a perfect mask of exasperation by Penelope Ann Miller.)
One day, after a premiere, he has an accidental run-in with a wide-eyed fan (she’s dropped her autograph book at his feet) named Peppy Miller (Bejo)—and the press and the public is besotted. Soon she becomes the new Hollywood “It Girl” and, in the classic style of the genre, we watch her rise up the ranks of film credits, from showgirl, to co-star, to leading lady. All the while, she’s pining away for Valentin.
Meanwhile, a dreadful new word has entered the Hollywood lexicon, at least as far as Valentin is concerned: Talkies.
Valentin thinks these talkies are just a fad, not to mention an unworthy artistic endeavor, and he stubbornly refuses to partake in them. This leads to one brilliant sequence (and the only one that fully incorporates sound), where Valentin is trapped in a horror chamber of his mind where even the most mundane sound—a coffee cup placed on a vanity mirror, say—is ruinous, deafening.
Well, we all know the rest: Peppy becomes a noted talkie movie star, while Valentin drifts into obscurity. Briefly, there’s some question as to whether Peppy is a naïf who’s been swept up by her own fame or a conniver, a la Eve Harrington in All About Eve—but fear not: The Artist is meant to delight, not confound with moral ambiguity.
And delight it does: In one charming scene, Peppy imagines a swoony dance with Valentin’s tuxedo on a rack. Later, in a bittersweet corresponding scene, a now destitute Valentin contemplates his reflected image in a store window, so that he appears to be wearing a tux.
Supporting work—by John Goodman, as a cigar-chomping studio head, and James Cromwell as Valentin’s loyal valet—is note perfect. And the cute little dog damn nears steals the show.
Early on in The Artist, the camera stays trained on Valentin as he expectantly waits backstage to “hear” the crowd react to his latest film. There’s a pause and then his face breaks into a wide grin. They’re not the only audience who will be cheering wildly. As The Artist proves again and again, we don’t need to hear a thing—Dujardin’s expressive acting and Hazanavicius’ gorgeous vision are more than enough.