The Artist is a brazen stunt that pays off. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, simultaneously channeling Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, tells a story about 1920s Hollywood made in the style of 1920s Hollywood: a silent black-and-white picture shot in the old-school 1:33 format (a square, not rectangular, image). The result is a disarming valentine to Hollywood that doesn’t feel the slightest bit self-congratulatory – an utterly enchanting bauble.
Hazanavicius kicks the story off on a self-reflexive note: In 1927, the sold-out audience inside a beautiful movie palace watches the latest hit starring the beloved actor George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) with live musical accompaniment from an orchestra at the theater. When the film-within-a-film ends, Valentine steps onto the stage to bask in the applause of the audience. The music stops and The Artist goes totally silent, giving the movie the first of its many “Whoa!” moments.
Valentin is a huge star, a fine actor and all-around nice guy. The only person who doesn’t seem to care much for him is his pampered wife (Penelope Ann Miller), whom he has learned to tolerate. The simple plot of The Artist follows what happens when the film industry becomes enamored of a new kind of picture — the talkies — and Valentin is relegated to the trash heap of yesterday’s news. And as his marquee value plummets, the star of a newcomer (Bérénice Bejo) rises.
The Artist doesn’t really look like something dug up from the 1920s: The image is too pristine (the movie was originally shot in color, because of the scarcity of black-and-white film stock), the editing rhythms and camera angles noticeably modern. Only the acting — amusing mugging by Dujardin, Bejo and a supporting cast that includes John Goodman as a studio mogul — genuinely captures the spirit of films from the era.
But Hazanavicius is aiming for something much trickier than mimickry: He wants to make a contemporary audience to invest emotionally in his story, despite all the distractions and limitations inherent in a silent movie. And although The Artist would have benefitted from some trims — an hour and 40 minutes is an awfully long running time for this slight material — we do end up caring deeply for Valentin as his world collapses and practically everyone abandons him (even his shadow turns away from him).
Hazanavicius can’t resist indulging in the occasional sound gag, startling and funny in the midst of all the silence (think Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, although infinitely more sophisticated). He also gets fantastic work from Valentin’s Jack Russell terrier — one of the best canine screen performances I have ever seen. And even if the movie spends a little too much time on Valentin’s downfall, the exuberant finale makes up for the excess — a pitch-perfect ending that answers all your questions in one deft stroke (why wouldn’t the studio hire Valentin to act in talkies, anyway?) and sends you home with your head in the clouds, intoxicated by the magic movies pull off better than any other art form.
The Artist seems destined to win a multitude of Oscars in March, and although the picture is rather thin and mostly trivial, you can’t quite begrudge the film all the love it is receiving. It's sweet, earnest and irresistible, even if all it has to say is "Movies are awesome."
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter.
Writer-director: Michel Hazanavicius.
Producer: Thomas Langmann.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 100 minutes. Mild adult themes. Opens Friday Dec. 23 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, South Beach, Sunset Place, Aventura; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray Beach, Palace.