The darling of critics and award shows, The Artist has already taken home a few statuettes and is a shoe-in for Oscar gold. While other films may be more viewer friendly, none can match the wit and charm of this film. Much of that charisma is due to leading man Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent movie superstar whose career is being crushed under the wheels of progress. The “talkies” have come to Hollywood, and nothing, not the movie business, not Valentin’s life, will ever be the same again.
Audiences who see The Artist will also likely never be the same again. Sitting in the darkened theater without any of the usual noise is disorienting at first. What our brains have come to expect – the sound of words with moving lips or a slam with the image of a closing door – is suddenly not there. Eventually, you adjust. The language of the movie - dramatic gestures, lots of dancing, and the occasional title card – becomes clear and you realize that the relative silence allows you to appreciate a shared chuckle or gasp with your fellow viewers that much more.
Then, The Artist throws a curveball. A glass clinks, a dog barks and modern life intrudes on the audience and Valentin. In many ways, this film is great because of what it chooses to leave out, and when it chooses not to leave it out anymore. Director Hazanavicius cleverly plays with sound and other contemporary techniques to address the audience and make a point or share a joke. Each deviation from the rules of silent cinema, whether it’s the simpering laugh of a showgirl or a shadow with a mind of its own, is a reminder that The Artist knows you’re watching and that it wants to subvert your expectations.
Just as Hazanavicius blends current and old-fashioned techniques, the actors must bridge the gap between the silver screen days of cinema and today. Luckily, the magnetism of Dujardin and his co-star Berenice Bejo, who plays Hollywood starlet Peppy Miller, is undeniable. They can play broad and subtle, which allows them to be expressive enough to convey their emotions without dialogue, but not be so campy that they alienate modern audiences.
On top of Dujardin and Bejo’s engaging performances, there are some great cameos by more well-known actors. John Goodman is an imposing studio exec, James Cromwell is the loyal chauffeur, and Malcolm McDowall just happens to be on set one day to see Peppy Miller off on her promising career.
At its heart, The Artist is a movie about movies, and its ardent enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. While it’s never clear who the titular artist is, I suspect that it refers not to a someone but a someplace: Hollywood, and everything that goes along with that iconic name.