The movie “The Artist” takes us back to the dawn of The Talkies Era in Hollywood, from 1927-1932.
A silent movie – or rather, a sound film with a music soundtrack – it evinces such mastery of form that it could easily be mistaken for a real classic. Set in 1927, the movie is so meticulous it doesn’t just look like a silent film but one from that specific year. In its cutting, its degrees of light and shadow and its contrasting hues of black and white, it is a product of serious study, honest appreciation and love.
Jean Dujardin, playing a silent-film idol, gets into the consciousness of those days. His character is something of an amalgam of Douglas Fairbanks, Valentino and John Gilbert, and his smile is evocative of those men.
And so we meet George Valentin (Dujardin) in that crucial year, 1927, when he is on top of the world, a screen lover and action-adventure hero, known for his acrobatic swashbuckling and an amazing dog who follows him everywhere, in movies and in life. George is a shameless showoff, always on, but there’s nothing obnoxious about his vanity. Like Gilbert and other stars from this time, he is a happy child, secure in the world’s love.
At his height, he meets an aspiring starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and gives her a break. Then talkies arrive, and his star starts sinking just as hers begins to rise. It is a measure of the sheer beauty of Dujardin’s acting that the sight of doubt creeping into his eyes should be so painful. Just as “The Artist” is a tribute to an earlier period of American film, Dujardin’s work here is a tribute to every actor who ever had his heart broken. His discovery of his own unimportance, his education in suffering, is the human education, and a story well suited to this most universal medium.
Though shot in the United States, this is, in fact, a French film. The cast of “The Artist” includes actors with many different native tongues.. The co-stars, Penelope Ann Miller (as the actor’s wife) and John Goodman (as a studio head), are American. But Dujardin, Bejo and Hazanavicius are major names in the current French cinema. Yet the silence makes them universal, so there is nothing foreign about them. John Goodman makes a bombastic studio head, and such familiar faces as James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle and Ed Lauter turn up.
At 39, Jean Dujardin is well-known in France. I’ve seen him in a successful series of spoofs about OSS 117, a Gallic secret agent who mixes elements of 007 and Inspector Clouseau. He would indeed have made a great silent star. His face is almost too open and expressive for sound, except comedy. As Norma Desmond, the proud silent star in “Sunset Boulevard,” hisses: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Dujardin’s face serves perfectly for the purposes here. More than some silent actors, he can play subtle as well as broad, and that allows him to negotiate the hazards of some unbridled melodrama at the end. I felt a great affection for him.
Beyond the technical, “The Artist” has the soul of a silent film. It has incidents and bits that evoke that age’s sensibility – everything from a loyal dog to beautifully visualized moments of sober reflection and longing. Silent cinema depends on the poetics of the human body and spirit. It’s a form that demands a gestural truth that is pointed and pure and does not allow for irony.
In the end, that is the tragedy “The Artist” is really exploring, the death and extinction of a medium that brought the world together, that everyone could experience in the same way, never from the outside, never as a stranger. With delicacy and originality, it laments what went away. But it also performs a resurrection, because in Dujardin’s performance we discover something extraordinary and lovely, the first truly great silent film performance in about 80 years.
The inspiration for the production design, sets, staging, lighting and so forth, Mr. Hazanavicius says, came principally from two F.W. Murnau classics, 1927′s “Sunrise” and 1930′s “City Girl.” Film critics consider these films, particularly “Sunrise,” to be among the greatest movies ever made – with or without sound. Film buffs will spot Mr. Hazanavicius’ nods in “The Artist” to other silent masters, too, including Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Erich Von Stroheim and King Vidor.
Mr. Dujardin, 39, who speaks little English, is a well-known actor in France. But heretofore unknown elsewhere. “He’s like our George Clooney,” director Francois Truffart told the L.A. Times recently. Ms. Bejo, 35, has starred in English-speaking dramas, such as 2001′s “A Knight’s Tale” with the late Heath Ledger; but most of her acclaim comes from French comedies. She co-starred with Mr. Dujardin in the first OSS 117 film.
Thanks to Jerry Garrett for his insights about the history of Hollywood and THE ARTIST on his blog.