In a motion picture bursting with too many pleasures to count, the most miraculous achievement of "The Artist" is its simple, genuine, unabashed earnestness. The concept of making a silent movie in the twenty-first century sounds innovative, but also like a tissue-thin gimmick. How could a filmmaker avoid campiness, artifice, and self-aware mockery while tackling a long-abandoned format that hasn't been widely practiced, let alone commercially viable, for nearly eighty years? Somehow, some way, and with a bit of obvious care and serendipitous magic, French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has achieved what one would have assumed to be nearly impossible. By flawlessly recreating the comfortable structure, the giddy, "let's-put-on-a-show" energy, the sumptuous black-and-white photography, and the exuberant, slightly exaggerated acting style of a pre-talkies bygone era, the film is born anew as so much more than just a mere technical exercise. That the story it tells is one of poignant, breathtaking beauty, speaking about the drive to create art within a forever evolving world as much as it is an innocent, bittersweet, just plain adorable romance, is gravy. "The Artist" is no less than a gushing ode to cinema itself.
Jean Dujardin, winner of the Best Actor Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, evokes the comedic brilliance of Charlie Chaplin with the debonair looks of Errol Flynn as George Valentin, a much-adored film star living in 1927 Hollywood. When his memorable chance encounter with unknown aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is caught by the media's flashing bulbs and turns up in the press, it instantly catapults her into the spotlight. Auditioning for the role of a back-up dancer in George's latest project, Peppy moves on to become a leading star in her own right just as the advent of sound pictures begin to phase out the silents. For George, who has only been known for his mime-like prowess in silent films both comic and adventurous, this could spell the end of his career and livelihood. For Peppy, it's only the beginning. With fame, however, comes an inflated ego, and it isn't long before she must step back and reconsider who she is and what George, whom she at least partially owes her career to, means to her.
"The Artist" is a sheer joy, a film that, amazingly, feels totally contemporary even as it is an intentional throwback to an age long since passed. Maybe the key to it succeeding so wholeheartedly is the passage of time itself. Watching a movie driven by its visuals and music score, bereft of audible language, the lines showing up only in occasional dialogue cards interspersed between shots, will be new and foreign to many viewers and nostalgic for others who have a broader knowledge of film history. No matter where a person falls on this spectrum, "The Artist" will feel fresh and vibrant in a way that very few movies ever are nowadays. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has a lot to convey, and says it without voices or basic aural effects. Outside of the rhapsodic, multilayered music score by Ludovic Bource, the only sound heard is of a glass being set down on a tablea harbinger of the doom befalling George's career as dreamt in a nightmareand one other bit that will be left up to the audience to discover.
Voices be damned, all the truth needed can be read on the faces of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, their give-and-take as George Valentin and Peppy Miller as deliciously, sincerely, sweepingly transcendent as any romance this year. Sharing a remarkable resemblance to Clark Gable and the suave poster-boy looks of every male idol of Old Hollywood combined, Dujardin is able to shine with charisma and remain wholly masculine even when his guard is let down and vulnerability creeps through. He's full of gusto, but also introspectiveperfect for inhabiting George Valentin, who begins the film at the top and can scarcely recognize himself by the time he's selling off all his possessions ("Congratulations, it's all sold. You have nothing left!" the auctioneer tells him) and having to fire his valued assistant and chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) because he hasn't the money to pay him.
As Peppy, who gets swept into a whirlwind of fame faster than she can digest it, Bérénice Bejo (2001's "A Knight's Tale
") is a spark plug of appeal in her own right, stealing scenes left and right with a simple gesture or a look that says more than words could. For a little time, Peppy gets too big for her britches (when George overhears her flippantly telling someone, "Out with the old, in with the new, make way for the young!" it shatters him), but it has less to do with who she is and more to do with what an intoxicating hold the entertainment industry can have on the impressionable. In a business that can build you up and destroy you just as quickly, Peppy finally realizes the mistakes she's made and sees in George the person responsible for who she ultimately has become. Bejo plays a full prism of emotions in one of the year's finest performances.
In supporting roles that make their respective mark, John Goodman (2011's "Red State
") is note-perfect as cigar-chomping movie director Al Zimmer; Missi Pyle (2010's "Barry Munday
") is very funny as Al's actress-wife Constance, threatened to be upstaged by co-stars George and a canine at the premiere of their latest picture; James Cromwell (2010's "Secretariat
") is touching as George's devoted chauffeur and confidante Clifton; and Penelope Ann Miller (2010's "Flipped
") is just right as George's long-suffering, unappreciative wife Doris. When Doris' decision to divorce coincides with Peppy's biggest role and film achievement yet, the payoff to her character is priceless, boiling down to a simple note she leaves her husband ("Get your stuff out of the house. P.S. You should go see 'Beauty Spot'. It's incredible!"). George is stung like this over and over, reminded of how far he's fallen while others have taken his place, and it's a credit to director Michel Hazanavicius that he so impeccably can juggle simultaneous humor with heartbreak.
Love. Success. Professional contentment. Dreams for the future. Forgiveness. "The Artist" is a modern silent film that harkens back to the old-fashioned while delving into thematic material that is accessible because it's so universal. At one of his lowest points, George steps into a movie theater and, for the span of the running time, is able to forget his worries and get lost in what is on the screen. Even in dark moments, the power of cinematic art can be downright miraculous. This, and another moment late in the film that simultaneously pulls breathless emotion and an unexpected big winking laugh out of the viewer, give levity and soul to the proceedings. As for the rest, well, it is every bit as entrancing, a celebration in revelry and the unforeseen corkscrews life can throw a person's way that make it worth waiting to see what happens next. In George and Peppy are soul mates who meet at just the right time, from there on inextricably linked. "The Artist" is unconditional bliss. Pennies from Heaven, indeed.