I should be thrilled “The Artist” is such a winning, fun crowd pleaser of a movie, despite being a silent, foreign film. This movie should be box office poison, and yet it’s whimsical and well made, despite an ultimately flimsy and familiar plot that makes it overrated as a Best Picture frontrunner.
In ways, director and screenwriter Michel Hazanavicius’s story hinges and spoofs not only on silents but on talkies like “A Star is Born,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Sunset Boulevard” and even “Citizen Kane.” “Kane” is an apt comparison, as this is a film about a giant toppling as he adapts to age and change.
It tells the story of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) at the peak of his career shortly before the advent of sound motion pictures. His whole life is a performance, showboating and pantomiming gestures in front of crowds after sold out screenings of his latest trashy action picture. And now a new star with a natural screen presence, spunk and voice who was once his biggest fan, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), is the one sweeping up all the roles and fame that used to be his.
The use of silence in “The Artist” is hardly just a gimmick; it’s an elegant cinematic staple serving as a creative, innovative way to tell a familiar story. Dujardin, Bejo and John Goodman as a Hollywood studio director all are wonderfully expressive and reveal a surprising amount of depth just through their facial gestures.
Granted, this is true of all silent stars, and Dujardin’s George Valentin has the best parts of Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, George O’Brien and a little dash of a more contemporary Gene Kelly built into him. Watching him perform, we quickly become acclimated to the fact that this is a well made silent film rather than a very self-aware modern history lesson.
“The Artist” even takes a few liberties with its modern technology. There’s one provocative dream sequence in which George is stuck unable to say a word as glasses clink, dogs bark and women laugh all around him. This is a story about a man who has been living so strongly in a silent world and is now stuck in one.
Even a smattering of silent montages is Eisensteinian in a way most silent films of the era obviously weren’t. Wonderful touches early on hint at how silent filmmaking could’ve continued to evolve if talkies never forced their way in.
And although the filmmaking never begins to wane thin, the story certainly does. As George enters into his dramatic third act and begins his sad sack lament at being jobless and obsolete, the innovation dissipates from the film and the story seems old hat.
The joyous cinematic flourishes are few and far between in these moments, and you wonder what other bold steps the film could’ve taken.
I question why these characters exist in a completely fictional world, free of the D.W. Griffith’s and the Al Jolson’s of the day. What hilarious opportunity was missed in not showing a disgruntled Chaplin furrowing his mustache along with George’s pencil-stache as they complain about talkies?
I think if “The Artist” was truly radical, it might have spurred a wave of new silent features on the web and TV. Rather, the novelty of the film, especially if it wins Best Picture, may now just motivate unaccustomed audiences to discover many old silent greats, and that’s not such a bad outcome.