The moment George Valentin appeared on stage, mugging shamelessly for his audience, I thought I was looking at the ghost of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. With his pencil-thin mustache and row of perfectly pearled teeth, the comparison didn’t seem that outrageous. Mentally, I was aware I was watching the French actor Jean Dujardin; but the illusion, though brief, was seamless, a testament to Dujardin’s uncanny genes and the vision of writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, who brings The Artist to life as if it were straight out of the 1920s, and respects it a such from first frame to last.
I’ll add that The Artist is a silent film, which by now you probably already know. Let’s stop for a second and ponder what the Weinsteins must have thought when they viewed this film and then plunked down a wad of cash for the distribution rights. Who would be the movie’s target demographic? And how would they market a silent film — out of France, no less — to a mass audience? Certainly, they must’ve seen something; Dujardin won Best Actor at the 2011 Cannes film festival, and the movie is currently the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar. But who would go see it? I can almost imagine the Weinsteins nervously calculating the returns in their heads, even as they signed on the dotted line.
And how right they were: The Artist is the most unabashedly entertaining film of 2011, a zany amalgam of high drama, pathos, slapstick comedy and song-and-dance spectacular that pays loving homage to the earliest days of cinema.
The story is as old as the hills: George Valentin, a hugely popular silent film star, is told by the head of the studio to which he is signed (John Goodman, always two steps away from apoplexy) that talkies are the way of the future. The actor refuses this bold declaration and, in effort to prove the executive wrong, sinks every last penny he has into a silent film, just as talkies are hitting the screen as predicted. Valentin’s film is a flop, of course, and the stock market crash of 1929 only sinks him further. As if to kick him while he’s down, Peppy Miller, a sprightly nobody who is discovered quite by accident, becomes the next film sensation. Valentin loves Peppy, and not unrequitedly, but his resentment of her success becomes an unbearable weight that drags him into despair. Think A Star is Born, if you weren’t already, and the countless other films over the past century that bear a similar theme. All of this could have been trite; but Hazanavicius, thoroughly inspired, treats the material as though it were an original idea, and makes it seem as though we’re seeing it for the very first time.
The fact that the film is silent throughout most of its running time (other than the score) is so much more than a simple exacting detail of the time: what could have been a tiresome gimmick functions, instead, as a necessity that elevates The Artist to some sort of divine brilliance. Thinking back, had the dialogue actually been spoken, we would have had nothing more than a black-and-white film about the silent era, and The Artist would have been merely good, instead of great.
The success of the film rests largely on Dujardin’s shoulders. He has what is, in many ways, the most difficult role of the year, bringing enormous physicality to a character whose emotions come not from words but slightly exaggerated body language and the gift of a face that conveys some meaning with every winning smile or eyebrow arched up to the heavens. The moment when Valentin breaks down and destroys his collection of prized film reels wallops us with tremendous power because Dujardin is so effective doing it. If he was given a seemingly insurmountable task, then so was Bérénice Bejo, as Peppy. She more than equals Dujardin by wordlessly creating a woman who loves an impossible man, but is willing to stick by him no matter what. If either actor wins at next year’s Academy Awards, I don’t think anyone could say it was undeserved.
So, again, who is the audience for this film? I say you are. The story is one that is universally relatable. There is nothing more difficult or profound happening here than the rise and fall of a movie star and the woman who loves him unconditionally. I don’t mean that as a slight to Hazanavicius’s screenplay; in fact, quite the opposite. He has taken a theme that all people can identify with in one way or another, and told it in a way that is utterly unique. I think if you can open your mind, allow the story to take you in, and accept the fact that the film is silent instead of dwelling on it, you’ll find yourself thrilled and rewarded in the end; if you can’t, then you’ve already made up your mind, and there isn’t anything I can do to help you.
2011; starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo; directed by Michel Hazanavicius; 100 min; rated PG-13