I went into The Artist expecting a gimmicky art piece, after all who would dare make a silent film in 2011; it has to be at least 70-something years since the last silent movie, excluding Mel Brooks’ parody Silent Movie. But man was I surprised when The Artist turned out not to be a pretentious piece of art, but a legitimate crowd-pleaser. For all intents and purposes this film could have been any commercial film made in 1929, if it weren’t for its self-reflexivity about the times. It is an innocent tribute to the magic of cinema, one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and a good reminder of why I love movies so much.
The story opens in Hollywood 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the movie star of the year. His latest film opened with 1 million in box office. Back then this was big! On the premiere of the film he bumps into a young background dancer, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo); it is one of these meet-cutes that involved a kiss in the cheek and have only happened in silent films. Peppy has big dreams of becoming the greatest movie star in Hollywood, and George could be her way in. And soon enough she is featured in his next few films. But just around the corner is the advent of the talkies, and when movie mogul Al Zimmer (John Goodman), president of Kinograph Pictures, decides to no longer produce silent films it might as well be the end of George Valentin.
A lot of real actors endured the same problems Valentin did when the movies transitioned into sound. If their real voices did not fit their own screen personas it would turn audiences away from the film. The fact that writer director Michel Hazanavicius manages to tell this story without sound is both an attribute of his talent as a filmmaker and of the wonders of cinema itself. We forget that people were first captivated by film when there was no sound to accompany it. Today over the top scores, and deafening sound design have transformed movies into sonic assaults. I for one welcome the silence.
It is hard to describe how uplifting this film is. Perhaps because it is easier to criticize that which we do not like than say what is good of what we do like. I liked The Artist’s spontaneity; there hasn’t really been a film like this in 70 years. The tools and style is so old it feels entirely new by now. I also enjoyed the use of Los Angeles as a setting; no film has photographed LA this well since Blade Runner. And the charm of all the actors, including the three dogs who played Valentin’s loyal companion, Jack the Terrier.
There is also much respect to be given to the studios, producers, and distributors who decided to back this film. It must have taken a great leap of faith for them to do so. I hope you take this leap as well. And just remember that films were never really silent.