Warm and welcoming recollection of the silent era: a review of “The Artist”

The Artist opens at the movies. Star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is among those gathered behind the screen – watching in reverse – as his latest hit finishes.

We cut to the theater and see a few clips of the film. At key moments, the camera turns on the rapt audience, whose faces are almost as animated as the silent actors onscreen.

Michel Hazavavicius’ The Artist is silent too, so we don’t hear the packed theater burst into applause at the end, but we see that reaction on the faces of Valentin, his co-stars, and his producer Zimmer (played with a jowly irascibility by John Goodman).

When Valentin campily basks in the applause from the audience, he lavishes particular attention on his canine co-star – an adorable terrier (Uggy) that also turns out to be his dog in real life. Whatever that is.

It’s a brilliant, fast-paced opening that embraces the viewer. The Artist is a warm and welcoming film, which – judging from the opening night audience reaction at the Savannah Film Festival – could have broad mainstream appeal.

The action begins in 1927, with Valentin as an adored idol who is about to face two momentous events: his first encounter with the adorable, ambitious Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and the dramatic advent of talkies.

When George first sees a talking clip, he scoffs at the ridiculousness of it: “If that’s the future, you can have it.”

But the future comes fast, the stock market crashes, and George’s self-produced silent film falls flat.

“The world is talking now,” Zimmer tells George. But George is having nothing of it.

“We have to talk, George,” Valentin’s wife says. But George is having none of that either. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear until the final moment of the film, George prefers virtual silence.

Hazavavicius allows the story to unfold gracefully – lingering over subtle moments but racing sometimes through months. He makes effective use of the narrative conventions of early Hollywood, especially montages – movie posters, press clippings, film credits – that pack loads of information into little time.

James Cromwell’s elegantly aging face makes him perfect as George’s longtime loyal driver, but Dujardin is the key player, at least when his scenes aren’t being stolen by Uggy. His sharp nose and solid but nimble body seem to have walked right out of the 1920s; he might have been born in black and white.

Hazavavicius has obviously done his homework. In a Q&A after the Savannah screening, James Cromwell noted that some scenes were even filmed with music that the director thought would be appropriate for the mood.

And the final musical choices are occasionally wondrous.

There are many nods to the silent era. After one emotional encounter with the fading star, Peppy echoes Garbo: “I want to be alone.”

A couple of sharp Citizen Kane allusions even punctuate the action: a small smoke-filled screening room, a marriage’s undoing told in silent scenes across a dining table.

But at times the film’s cleverness and literalness get in the way of true pathos as George’s life unravels in existential crisis.

At the end of his final film, George is literally and figuratively sinking. When he runs into Peppy on the steps at the film studio, she’s on her way up and he’s on his way down.

As he strides out into the street, a marquee in the distance announces The Lonely Star.

That’s not to say that The Artist does not contain real emotion. It does.

Ironically, one of the most touching moments comes as a character looks at individual frames of a movie reel. Another moving moment comes in a nightmare, when George is attacked by cinematic sound.

Even amongst such strong performances, Bejo as Peppy stands out. She’s lithe, funny, innocent, sensual – and looks much younger than her 35 years. It’s a star turn, and I bet we’ll be seeing her at the movies in the U.S. again.

Assuming she can talk.

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