What are we to make of the fact that 2011, a year of 3-D overload and box-office decline, offered two love letters to silent cinema?
Hard on the heels of Hugo, Martin Scorsese's mash note to Georges Méliès and Harold Lloyd, comes the considerably less expensive—and considerably more charming—The Artist, a black-and-white, nearly wordless return to silent storytelling, made by Frenchmen and filmed in Hollywood. Set at the dawn of the talkies, its tale is as familiar as Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the silent screen's top matinee idol, a Douglas Fairbanks type who stars in absurd adventures. His home life is like The Thin Man gone sour, but while his glamorous wife (Penelope Ann Miller) may have tired of him, his loyal Jack Russell terrier, his companion on-screen and off, will never let him down.
When George gets to know an aspiring hoofer named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) over multiple takes one afternoon, the relationship promises something more. But then history intervenes, George finds himself a relic, and the sound era welcomes Peppy, dancing her way into America's hearts.
Many stars, like Ronald Colman and Joan Crawford, survived the transition to the talkies, and writer-director Michel Hazanavicius never gives a credible reason why George's career couldn't continue until the final scene. (Before that, it's just studio chief John Goodman barking that audiences want new faces.) But what he has given us is a nostalgic trip with abundant aesthetic pleasures.
Hazanavicius, already expert at verisimilitude with his spy spoofs OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and its sequel, Lost in Rio (both starring staring Dujardin as a swaggering but clueless secret agent and shot by Artist cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman), is after something deeper here: a silent movie about the advent of sound, with all the contradictions and meta moments that promises.
The scene in which George becomes aware of sound—for his world is actually silent—is a marvel of economy, but the film is just as interested in replicating the visual poetry of black-and-white cinema: mirrored reflections, the shadows cast by rain on a white shirt.
We witness breaks in this verisimilitude, particularly when it comes to muting sunlight, and Ludovic Bource's lush orchestral score sometimes evokes the '50s more than the '30s, quoting Vertigo far too liberally.
But we have much else to contemplate: what a wonderful actor Dujardin is when he's playing it straight; the wrought-iron filigree staircases of Los Angeles' landmark Bradbury Building; the clunkiness of reporters' tape recorders; the unusual height of the sets (the frame is the old "Academy ratio," a reminder that widescreen is not necessarily better); the inexplicable PG-13 rating. The Artist is slight, yes, but it's also sincerely in love with movies and moviegoing, a rare quality in our own transitional era.
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
With Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo