Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman
Movies today bombard us with a full battery of visual, sound, and even psychological effects just to keep us “entertained” and in our seats for up to three hours. French director Michel Hazanavicius has proven that intensity is not necessary, even for Academy Award material. The Artist, the only silent movie I have seen besides some Charlie Chaplin films, declares its excellence in less than two hours. The movie is refreshing as it revels in simplicity and wittiness.
A French-Belgian production, The Artist centers on the contrast between the fall of charming silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and the rise of aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) in Hollywood in the late 1920s, during the transition from the silent film era to the exciting generation of “talkies.”
Miller is a talented and ambitious, but unknown young woman when she first gets a role as an extra in a film produced by Kinograph, the studio in which Valentin’s films are shot. Valentin rescues Miller from being fired by the director and gives her advice that helps her start her career. Miller slowly advances to more important roles and is eventually included in Kinograph’s list of “new faces.” She becomes Hollywood’s most famous while Valentin, who refuses to have his voice recorded or be involved in talkies, loses his fame, pride, and money. When his wife throws him out of the house, Valentin is left only with his faithful dog (Uggie) and his loyal valet (James Cromwell), along with alcohol and depression. Despite the seemingly tragic situation, The Artist is not a depressing film at all; in fact, it is delightful and heart-warming.
Of course, it is impossible to ignore the charms of the leading man: Jean Dujardin has the sweetest face, the most sentimental eyes, and the most enchanting smile. Dujardin has already won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Globes, and seven additional film festivals for his performance in The Artist. The charisma and silent laughter of Valentin make me feel firsthand what it would be like to be a part of his captive onscreen audience in the silent film era. Valentin maintains his graceful and handsome character in all situations: Even his pride and stubbornness — generally character flaws — are handsome and heroic as he chooses to preserve his identity and values as an artist.
The effect of the absence of dialogue and sounds on the way an audience experience time creates a major point of interest in The Artist. When you take away spoken words from a film, or everyday life, every moment stretches to be enjoyed, observed, perceived, and understood more carefully. Delicate details of human gestures and composure are no longer overshadowed by what is said vocally, and nonverbal communication becomes a frame of constraint that only drives the filmmakers to be more creative. A simple message or storyline is now given a longer interval to unfold itself. Many scenes are memorable as they are carried out in such ways that are visually remarkable; they catch the audience by surprise, very creatively and sometimes so subtly. One particularly powerful scene occurs near the beginning of the movie, when Miller, as Valentin’s admirer, sneaks into Valentin’s dressing room to leave a thank you note. She sees Valentin’s hanging suit jacket on her way out and stops in front of it. As she strokes the front of the jacket and wallows in her fantasy, she slips her arm into one of the sleeves and holds herself on the waist as she rubs her face against the chest of the invisible Valentin. When the scene is captured when the camera zooms out, the screen becomes a large painting of a extraordinary cinematic moment.
Everything in The Artist is finely executed, from the casting and acting of every single character to the art direction and set design. To be honest, it is worth the ticket price just to go see the dog’s performance. During the last scene, our silent smiles were huge. We held our breath, and a hundred minutes of perfection ended with speechless joy.