Small, abstract and intimate, the thoroughly contrived and well-constructed silent movie that’s the talk of Tinseltown deserves its gold-plated reputation. The Artist, which begins in Hollywood in the year 1927, is a layered and complicated love story that breaks your heart and dares to exact a happy ending. As silent movie star George Valentin, Jean Dujardin is at once commanding, agile and irresistible. When a rising young dancer and actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) daydreams about being in his arms and caresses his face, it isn’t difficult to see why; she is a hero-worshipper at heart, from showing up at the premiere of a picture in which the dashing Valentin makes a mockery of Soviet torture to returning a favor that marks their shared sense of life.
Handsome, married actor and plucky, struggling actress fall in love. But their goodness keeps them apart, until their vanity does, too. Upon reflection, The Artist portrays the artist as rather desperate and shallow and terribly insecure. Valentin is wedded to a matronly ice queen in an apparent marriage of convenience which the audience is left to project from scratch. As talkies and economic collapse converge, the movie star is plunged into false pride and despair in a way that contradicts his light, debonair sophistication and well-deserved stardom. Valentin’s internal struggle is the film’s focus, really, with an adorable dog to magnify the conflict, and his journey takes psychologically deep, twisting turns that ultimately lead to a more realistic approach to his art and enlightens him to the art of living. The Artist depicts the intersection of art and life and it is very much about how one ought to do both.
Peppy, for her part, is always on display, from the first audition to her first act of empowerment against a studio executive, ever armed with a grease pencil and guarding her true love for George Valentin while facing the consequences of her own short-range thoughtlessness. As Peppy ascends, George descends, with the always reliable Missi Pyle, James Cromwell and John Goodman and others perfectly suited to punctuate their psycho-drama, and the movie’s not nearly as manic as its advertising suggests.
Writer and director Michel Hazanavicius delivers endless sensory material with which to process the artist’s powerful transformation. A closing door signals exactly that. A silently mirrored scream signals an inaudible eruption of pent-up egotism. A studio staircase symbolizes that show business is cyclical; some go up while others come down. A blindingly white hospital gives light and life. None of this is presented in pretentious terms. The players’ dancing laughter has a lightness, gaiety and innocence throughout, in black and white silence, with Ludovic Bource’s score, with nods to Bernard Herrmann and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whom George Valentin most closely resembles.
The screenplay is more plain than obvious yet its simplicity is deceptive. A movie that evokes sadness when the hero is losing in a scene in which he is literally sinking – or places a little red wagon on a city sidewalk – or leaves the woman wanting and waiting patiently for the man – and manages to leave us tap dancing with the conviction that art requires effort and that making art like life, and making life like art, is hard, is modern in theme, old-fashioned in form and both in the best sense. Wrenching and delightful, The Artist does to the audience what it does to its characters. It takes one’s breath away. This picture may be an old-fashioned story within a story and derivative of other classic films but it is no less emotional, powerful and uplifting.