Written & Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Produced by Thomas Langmann
Released by the Weinstein Company
France/USA. 100 min. Rated PG-13
With Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant & John Goodman
Studded with easy-to-spot film references, the black-and-white silent film The Artist is the type of film that movie buffs wished they had made. Director Michel Hazanavicius has beaten them to the punch with his courtly love letter to 1920s Hollywood.
In 1927, George Valentin reigns at the top of the star system’s food chain. His latest vehicle, “A Russian Affair,” premieres before a packed audience in evening dress, and after the curtain comes down, the star takes to the stage to a standing ovation. Again. And again, keeping his bleached-blond leading lady fuming in her heels off stage. Adding further to the insult, Valentin then calls out for his four-legged co-star, a Jack Russell terrier, to take a bow. (The canine comes to Valentin’s rescue in film after film, always in the last reel.) Bowing and blowing kisses, the strapping star basks in the adoration of the spotlight. He’s a ham through and through, though he never alienates the viewer. Valentin remains charming throughout his heyday and during hard times (the arrival of sound is just around the corner). Though he has the pride of a star used to getting his way and calling the shots at the Kinograph Motion Picture Company, Valentin lacks a mean-spirited conceit. He just wants to be loved—by the public. He pretty much ignores his wife. Later scenes from their marriage take place around the breakfast table—cue the Citizen Kane homage.
Waiting outside among the starstruck hoi polloi outside the movie palace is a beautiful young woman (Bérénice Bejo) in full flapper wear with cloche hat and bobbed hair. In a chance meeting with the movie star, she gives him a peck on the cheek. Flash bulbs go off, and the next morning, a headline asks, who is this mystery woman? An extra and wanna-be actress, she has taken on the stage name of Peppy Miller, and she certainly lives up to the name. The morning after the premiere, Peppy’s hired for a ball scene for Valentin’s new film “A German Affair,” and, surprise, surprise, she finds herself in the arms of the matinee idol.
In a film full of delicate moments, you witness George and Peppy fall in love while waltzing on the set. Fittingly, reaction shots propel the narrative, and Hazanavicius knows when to take his time and when to flash forward. Of course, George and Peppy overlook the obvious and go their separate ways, but not before Valentin gives the youngster some advice: she needs a gimmick. A beauty mark will do, and with that she’s on her way to stardom, like a wholesome Joan Crawford. She adapts to the new technology, while he clings to the old formulas, producing with his own money a hoary jungle silent adventure “Tears of Love.” Then Wall Street lays an egg. The various plot ingredients include a little bit of A Star Is Born, Singing in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and then some.
Ah, strictly speaking, the film is not silent. Ludovic Bource’s buoyant musical soundtrack nudges the film along. Then again, even silent movies weren’t actually silent. There was always musical accompaniment in theaters, and orchestral scores were written specifically for major productions. Hazanavicius develops an easy flow between the story and the moderate use of intertitles, so much so that when the sound effects intrude, it temporarily shatters the reverie.
As Valentin, Jean Dujardin’s screen persona has a dash of the derring-do of the athletic Douglas Fairbanks and the aquiline profile of John Barrymore. However, Dujardin stamps his own imprint on the archetype of the slick, dark-haired leading man—he’s also a handsome clown who may bring the pencil-thin moustache back into vogue. It’s still an anomaly for such a good-looking actor to embrace the role of fool without regressing in age. Valentin is in the same league as his dapper and physically elegant counterparts who arrived with the talkies, like his doppelganger William Powell, except their wit derived from the dialogue and not so much the body language. Dujardin’s good-natured buffoonery also stood out in a previous collaboration with Hazanavicius, the cheesy spy spoof OSS 177: Cairo Nest of Spies. It’s probably unfair to compare Dujardin, who has broken out internationally with this role, to such an intimidating icon as Cary Grant, but Dujardin carries himself like an old school movie star: dashing and rubber limbed.
The Artist has won raves at its innumerable festival appearances, and with little doubt, this is one contemporary film that fans of Turner Classic Movies will embrace, but a lingering question remains, will audiences who habitually skip by the TCM channel and avoid anything in black-and-white buy into the irony-free narrative that’s so linear it’s flat as a-flapper? If they give it chance, they will. Played without a self-conscious wink, the entire cast wholehearted lives in a world where a nobody can become star and a canine has the wisest soul. You can give into the sentimentality without feeling like a sap.