Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is not only a throw back to the days before people spoke in films; it almost makes you wonder why we ever added sound in the first place. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo shine as the film’s two leads able to say more with a look or a soft shoe than most of us can in 140 characters. Filmed in stunning black-and-white, The Artist takes us back to a time when men wore suits, women wore hats and a simple dance could lead to love.
The movie tells the story of silent film star George Valentin (Dujardin) and how his world and career are threatened when sound and talking are introduced into art form. At the same time, aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bejo) finds herself the sudden face of this new style of filmmaking with her star rising as George’s falls. After a chance encounter at one of George’s film premieres, Peppy wins a role as an extra on his next film (much to George’s surprise and delight). It is clear Peppy is a natural star from the start with a contagious personality and bright eyes that play right to the camera. Audiences quickly fall in love with the new starlet, and they are clearly not the only ones.
But with the advent of sound in film, George’s heydays as a silent film star quickly become numbered and before he knows it, his producer Zimmer (John Goodman) is showing him the door. Zimmer is not trying to be malicious; he is simply a businessman upholding the true notion of show business –go where the money is. Even as he casts George out in favor of younger faces, he does so begrudgingly. The Artist is full of these sweet-at-heart characters from George’s long-standing valet Clifton (James Cromwell) to Peppy herself as she constantly tries to help and reach out to George as he struggles.
Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffamn create beautiful images and moments throughout the film from Peppy’s dalliance with George’s tuxedo to the clever use of reflections as George looks back on his days of wearing one. Even in one of the film’s darker moments with George at his lowest point, the image of the broken star surrounded by burned reels of film is still striking in its own right.
Silent movies utilized winks and physical comedy to get laughs out of the audience, but The Artist gets its biggest laughs commenting on silent films themselves. After George hears about the idea of actors talking in films, there is an amusing sequence where sound floods into the scene – from people talking in the background to hearing a glass set on a table. This sudden onslaught of sound quickly becomes noise and is a clever nod not only to George’s state of mind, but it’s also jarring enough to make you long for the silence as well.
Obviously with no dialogue or sound effects, music becomes the primary accompaniment and is tasked with ranging in style from dramatic to sinister, peppy to silly. Composer Ludovic Bource rises to the occasion creating a score that is able to run the gamut of the film, elevating each scene with a full orchestra you wish was playing live in the theater. In a film filled with music and absent of every day sounds, the experience truly becomes an escape and makes you remember the days when films were made purely for entertainment.
Talking or not, we learn there is one form of entertainment that does not require either and the final scene with George and Peppy proving this fact leaves you unable to tear your eyes away from the pair while also working as a nice call back to their first time on set together. Change is not always easy, but it is necessary to keep us moving forward and growing. However there is also something to be said for revisiting the past and what a fun journey that can be.
The Upside: From the performances to the music to the overall look of the film, The Artist is simply a delight from beginning to end and will leave you longing for the days of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
The Downside: It is slightly brushed over that although the film is certainly a love story between George and Peppy, there was another woman in George’s life who was neglected and forgotten about from the start, making light on his feet (but down on his luck) George seem slightly selfish and unsympathetic at times.
On the Side: The real breakout star of the film is George’s dog who proves to be almost a better actor, talking (or in his case, barking) or not, than George and Peppy themselves. Part hero, part ham – this pup nearly steals every scene he is in.