In many ways — in all ways — The Artist is a profound achievement. A silent movie — or rather, a sound film with a music soundtrack — it evinces such mastery of form that it could easily be mistaken for a real classic.
Set in 1927, the movie is so meticulous it looks like not just a silent film but one from that specific year. In its cutting, its degrees of light and shadow and its contrasting hues of black and white, it is a product of serious study, honest appreciation and love.
Beyond the technical, The Artist has the soul of a silent film. It has incidents and bits that evoke that age's sensibility: a loyal dog; beautifully visualized moments of sober reflection and longing.
Silent cinema depends on the poetics of the human body and spirit. It's a form that demands a gestural truth that is pointed and pure and does not allow for irony. It would have been a shame bordering on criminality had director Michel Hazanavicius and his cast taken things this far just to get cute and land the film in the zone of spoof. The Artist is the furthest thing from that.
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Jean Dujardin, playing a silent-film idol, doesn't just ape the movements; he gets into the consciousness of those days. His character is something of an amalgam of Douglas Fairbanks, Valentino and John Gilbert, and his smile is evocative of those men. Ever since talkies, our pop culture heroes have smirked, glowered and smoldered at us, but in the silent days, they never stopped smiling, and in a very specific way. They smiled as if they really thought nothing bad could ever happen to them. But of course it could, and it did.
And so we meet George Valentin (Dujardin) in that crucial year, 1927, when he is on top of the world, a screen lover and action-adventure hero, known for his acrobatic swashbuckling and an amazing dog that follows him everywhere, in movies and in life. George is a shameless showoff, always on, but there's nothing obnoxious about his vanity. Like Gilbert and other stars from this time, he is a happy child, secure in the world's love.
At his height, he meets an aspiring starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and gives her a break. Then talkies arrive, and his star starts sinking just as hers begins to rise. It is a measure of the sheer beauty of Dujardin's acting that the sight of doubt creeping into his eyes should be so painful. Just as The Artist is a tribute to an earlier period of American film, Dujardin's work here is a tribute to every actor who ever had his heart broken. His discovery of his own unimportance, his education in suffering, is the human education, and a story well suited to this most universal medium.
Why does George not embrace talkies or at least give them a try? This question is ultimately answered, but subtly and touchingly, in the way a good silent movie would.
To see The Artist is to realize how much movies have lost from having gained so much technical sophistication. Think about this: Although shot in the United States, this is, in fact, a French film. The co-stars, Penelope Ann Miller (as the actor's wife) and John Goodman (as a studio head), are American. But Dujardin, Bejo and Hazanavicius are major names in French cinema. Yet the silence makes them universal, so there is nothing foreign about them.
In the end, that is the tragedy The Artist is really exploring: the death and extinction of a medium that brought the world together, that everyone could experience in the same way, never from the outside, never as a stranger. With delicacy and originality, it laments what went away. But it also performs a resurrection, because in Dujardin's performance we discover something extraordinary and lovely, the first truly great silent film performance in about 80 years.