Utterly charming and much more than a technical exercise.
Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has made a modern-day silent film, and while that may seem off-putting to all but hardened cineastes, the story makes our transition into that early art form an easy one. It’s 1927 and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the toast of Hollywood. His acrobatic adventures (think Douglas Fairbanks) are adored by audiences – at least until the advent of sound. Suddenly an aspiring actress (Berenice Bejo) whom Valentin had taken under his wing is launched to stardom, while he’s relegated to being a Hollywood has-been.
Every detail in the production is delightfully precise – even the font on the title cards – but it is Dujardin more than anything who seems directly lifted from an earlier era. It’s not only the deft footwork and easy grin of Fairbanks that he captures, but also – especially in a scene in which he mimics the little dog that serves as his constant companion – the playfulness of Charlie Chaplin. How did I know the challenge Hazanavicius had set for himself had been met? Whenever a clip from one of Valentin’s films was shown, I wanted that movie to continue playing.
The Artist grows deeper than mere mimicry when Valentin’s fortunes turn. Initially he scoffs at the idea of “talkies,” but then the horror of being left behind begins to sink in. There is an eerie, intricate dream sequence in which objects around Valentin – a clinking cup, for example – make noise while he remains unable to speak. It’s the sound era as existential nightmare.
In its pathos and nostalgia for endangered art forms, The Artist reminded me of The Illusionist, an animated film from 2010 that lamented the loss of both hand-drawn features and the age of vaudeville. (The main character is a 1950s magician whose regular venues are being invaded by rock-and-roll bands.) Both films are something like funeral parties – they celebrate beauty that’s no longer with us.