I didn’t know what to expect. From the endless trailer play The Artist received at the Landmark on Clark, I have to admit I didn’t have much hope. It looked too “artsy,” too cute, too self-important. That’s at least how it seemed. And then the reviews started coming in, and pretty much everyone was talking about it on all the movie podcasts. Still, I was holding out. Everyone could have been deceived by the gimmick of a contemporary silent, black and white film, right?
Of course, my preconceptions were wrong (I still think the trailer mis-markets the film): The Artist is a wonderfully fun and entertaining film, and that makes up for whatever high pretensions it may have. The story is basically the same as Singin’ in the Rain: A successful silent film star struggles to adapt to sound while the woman he loves becomes a huge star.
The year is 1929, the place is Hollywoodland, and the falling star is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a mix of Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, and William Powell (and Valentino, too, I guess) with the ruggedly charismatic face of Sean Connery and the natural cheeriness of Gene Kelly. And that description is not lifted from Roger Ebert’s review—I’d be surprised to see a review that didn’t mention it.
Anyway, on his way out the door from his latest premiere, Valentin bumps into one of his fans, the slightly ditzy flapper Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). He shrugs it off and poses for a quick photo with her.
But Peppy doesn’t leave it at that. She’s determined to become a star and auditions for the role of a dancing extra in Valentin’s next film. She lands it, and during the shoot, the two ruin endless takes cracking each other up. A necessarily platonic relationship blooms—Peppy is hopelessly in love with George, though Valentin is, albeit unhappily, married—and he even kickstarts Peppy’s career by penciling in a distinctive beauty mark.
As the next couple years pass, Peppy works her way up to superstardom while Valentin falters, first with his disastrous dream project, and second with the stock crash.
Peppy stays in contact and tries all she can to salvage his career, but George is too proud to accept help and continues to fall deeper and deeper into booze and depression.
However, this rather serious description only scratches the surface, because the movie is just flat-out fun. In fact, outside of Erroll Morris’s Tabloid, I haven’t laughed as much at any other 2011 film. Director Michel Hazanavicius sets the film’s wonderfully playful tone with the first scene, showing us a film within a film. The stars, director, and producers are all in attendance and breathlessly waiting for the audience reaction. We see the end title card and then a slight pause. We hear nothing, even the music has stopped. Then cut to the ecstatic moviegoers, cheering in absolute silence.
The joke’s on us, but it’s not a joke that the film I saw in the trailer would make, that is, one to show you how smart the director is in tricking you. No, it’s one that gets a big laugh—and I can just imagine Hazanavicius sitting behind yet another screen, awaiting the actual audience’s reaction, with a silly grin and a shrug, wordlessly saying, “Yep, you’re really watching a silent film, and here’s some ways we can have fun with it.”
First are the performances. As mentioned earlier, Dujardin has an eternally imaginative face that can be funny, sad, underhanded, shocked, and every emotion between. Peppy (I’m going to refer to the actress by her character’s name, because it’s a massive pain to type out Bejo’s name) is cute as a button and, like Dujardin, has the kind of face I’d describe as rubbery, if that word could connote the depth of expression she conveys without sounding inelegant. And both can dance, as demonstrated in two very impressive scenes. Were these the ’30s, they’d be headliners in Tinsel Town, I tell ya!
And there’s the dog. Valentin, as part of his William Powell persona, has his own Asta, a (presumably) Scotch Terrier who accompanies him in both his films and real life. The dog is Valentin’s constant companion through thick and thin, and, like the silence of the film itself, it immediately comes off as a gimmick but quickly develops into something beyond that. In short, it’s an ingenious device by Hazanavicius to summarize what Valentin is feeling and encapsulate a number of feelings into a handful of expressions.
Second, and something I’ve already dwelled on too much, is the idea of telling a story simply through the arch of eyebrows, the circularity of the mouths, and the intensity of the eyes. The plot itself is not very complex, which is probably a good decision in a silent film, but the focus squarely centered on the leads, particularly Dujardin, is enough to make the drama work without overdoing it. The outright playfulness of the first half takes a dark turn as the film goes on, but the transition is set up so well with the two that it never feels abrupt.
And third is the inventiveness of the film’s humor. There’s a sequence that uses a few sounds, and it’s played with utter precision that mounts to hilarity. Even the throwaway jokes (the opening film of Valentin’s is called A Russian Affair, and the apparent sequel he’s shooting with Peppy is called A German Affair), work well (here’s another favorite: in one of the newspapers, the only other legible headline reads “Lightning Strike Kills One Man, Injures Two Others”) to keep the film’s lighter tone throughout, providing a lot of laughs in the first half and much-needed relief in the second.
Just stop reading this, and go see it.