To explain how The Artist works is to almost apologize for it. If the words “black and white silent film” sound disagreeable, then yes, this won’t work for anyone not adventurous. This is a recreation of a silent film, with title cards telling you what the characters are saying, but there’s no dialogue, just music. It’s in black and white, in order to capture the look of a 1920’s motion picture and is a fictional period piece about a famous Hollywood actor. Most importantly, it’s really, really funny, moving and romantic and, after a few minutes of adjustment, you won’t notice or even care that it’s a silent film.
French actor Jean Dujardin (who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his work here) stars as George Valentin, an in-demand, wealthy and multi-talented movie star who resembles (in looks and character) a cross between Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. His specialty is romantic action movies and his career is on the rise. His chance meeting with a gorgeous starlet Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo, another breakout star) gives him the first inkling that his fame and youth appeal may be running out. Once the Depression sets in, Valentin finds himself out of work, left with a mansion filled with relics of past glories and a loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) he can barely afford.
The opening scenes, showing Valentin enjoying the acclaim and love of his audience a little too much, sets the tone perfectly. This isn’t a brooding history lesson like Hugo but a cheerful send up of Hollywood egos and formulas along the line of Singin’ in the Rain. The cast is peppered with gifted character actors like John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell and Penelope Ann Miller who not only nail their dialogue-free roles but truly look like they come from the 1920’s.
Dujardin’s performance showcases how he’s easily as talented as the character he plays, with elaborate dance numbers, action set pieces and harder-than-they-look bits of comedy that would prove too demanding for many lesser actors. His ridiculously handsome looks and 50 watt smile are initially his trademark and later are a poignant mask. Bejo matches him scene for scene, initially making us think of silent era actresses like Lillian Gish or Edna Purvience with her looks and style of performance; the character is all heart and Bejo is really touching as an actress who survives in Hollywood by her quick thinking and adaptability.
Most movies with cute dogs find the actors occasionally upstaged by adorable mutts and this one is no different. If anything, the film’s scene stealing dog, coupled with it’s boisterous sense of humor, cheerful tone, and unique offering as a “different” experience in the theaters, underlines what this truly is: a family film. Seriously folks, tell your kids about the way movies used to be, prepare them for something similar to a Charles Chaplin comedy and enjoy a truly great film and Oscar contender you can take everyone to see.
My only hesitation to giving this a full five stars is that, if I were to be mean, this is more a successful stunt than anything else. Yet, if you leave your cynicism at the door and take this little spellbinder for what it is (and ignore its rep as an award gathering ground breaker), the plain and simple fact is that it completely works.
I took someone to see it, not telling him what it was, and, despite early puzzlement, he absolutely loved it. The approach may be “old fashioned” but you’ll be dazzled by how entertaining this is.
★ ★ ★ ★
Rated PG13/100 Min