Is it possible to forget that "The Artist" is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That's what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. At a sneak preview screening here, a few audience members actually walked out, saying they didn't like silent films. I was reminded of the time a reader called me to ask about an Ingmar Bergman film. "I think it's the best film of the year," I said. "Oh," she said, "that doesn't sound like anything we'd like to see."
Here is one of the most entertaining films in many a moon, a film that charms because of its story, its performances and because of the sly way it plays with being silent and black and white. "The Artist" knows you're aware it's silent and kids you about it. Not that it's entirely silent, of course; like all silent films were, it's accompanied by music. You know — like in a regular movie when nobody's talking?
One of its inspirations was probably "Singin' in the Rain," a classic about a silent actress whose squeaky voice didn't work in talkies and about the perky little unknown actress who made it big because hers did. In that film, the heroine (Debbie Reynolds) fell in love with an egomaniacal silent star — but a nice one, you know? Played by Gene Kelly in 1952 and by Jean Dujardin now, he has one of those dazzling smiles you suspect dazzles no one more than himself. Dujardin, who won best actor at Cannes 2011, looks like a cross between Kelly and Sean Connery, and has such a command of comic timing and body language that he might have been — well, a silent star.
Dujardin is George Valentin, who has a French accent that sounds just right in Hollywood silent films, if you see what I mean. The industry brushes him aside when the pictures start to speak, and he's left alone and forlorn in a shabby apartment with only his faithful dog, Uggie, for company.
At a crucial moment, he's loyally befriended by Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who when they first met, was a hopeful dancer and has now found great fame. The fans love her little beauty mark, which Valentin penciled in with love when she was a nobody.
As was often the case in those days, the cast of "The Artist" includes actors with many different native tongues, because what difference did it make? 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.
I've seen "The Artist" three times, and each time it was applauded, perhaps because the audience was surprised at itself for liking it so much. It's good for holiday time, speaking to all ages in a universal language. Silent films can weave a unique enchantment. During a good one, I fall into a reverie, an encompassing absorption that drops me out of time.
I also love black and white, which some people assume they don't like. For me, it's more stylized and less realistic than color, more dreamlike, more concerned with essences than details. Giving a speech once, I was asked by parents what to do about their kids who wouldn't watch B&W. "Do what Bergman's father did to punish him," I advised. "Put them in a dark closet and say you hope the mice don't run up their legs."
Advancing age and retreating inhibition now make me liable to cry at the movies. But this has to be the first time I have actually wept tears of joy. It is not high camp exaggeration. This happens every time I watch the last sequence of this exquisitely judged, gloriously funny and achingly tender film by the French director Michel Hazanavicius, a movie about the black and white silent age of Hollywood, which is itself in black and white, and silent – or almost silent. There are some spoken words, and a continuous orchestral score by Ludovic Bource.
Since seeing The Artist at its Cannes premiere earlier this year, I have become one of a global legion of jabbering evangelists, and only the fear of causing a backlash deters us from going on about its artistry more. The debonair comedy and pastiche are worn with airy lightness; the romance is gentle and yet unexpectedly passionate. It is an utterly beguiling love story and a miracle of entertainment, which unexpectedly says a good deal about male pride and emotional literacy. It even, in its insouciant way, touches on the question of whether the art of cinema was purer when it was silent.
The story is a variation on a theme from A Star Is Born. An older, established star helps a talented young woman on the path to fame, only to see his career decline as she hits the big time. It is a flirtation in which the man is teacher, mentor and lover; in The Artist it is a love made impossible by fate and the reversal of status. Physical consummation is irrelevant: the transactions of power and celebrity involved are sexier than sex.
It is 1927, and George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is a dashing and lovably preposterous silent movie star, endowed with hyperreal handsomeness and eyebrows and moustache resembling strokes of a cartoonist's pen. His trademark is always to appear on screen in the company of his adorable little dog, Uggie, also an offscreen buddy as resourceful and courageous as Lassie. Valentin is, of course, a little like Rudolph Valentino, perhaps most obviously in his preferred role of mysterious adventurer, and also like Gene Kelly, in the openness of his toothy smile. He also, in his top hat, white tie and tails, very much resembles Maurice Chevalier.
Valentin is at the top of his game as we find him at the rapturous opening of his new movie A Russian Affair, a politically slanted story in which he appears to be playing an aviator and soldier of fortune battling for Georgian independence. The Russian baddies are seen torturing his character in the opening scene, with electrodes fitted to his skull, trying to make him talk. But he will not talk, thus setting the scene for stubbornness, reticence, personal vulnerability and fear of the future. Amid the cheering crowds outside, a pert little ingenue somehow blunders past the police line and winds up kissing Valentin on the cheek, to the photographers' delight.
This is Peppy Miller, played by the Argentinian-born actor Bérénice Bejo, who also appeared opposite Dujardin in Hazanavicius's 2006 spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies. Their flirtation, and her infatuation with him, earns her a break in pictures, and this beautiful and good-natured young woman succeeds in impressing George's glowering producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) and also his shrewd, loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell). But George himself is no cheater and sleazeball; he is married, albeit unhappily, and so an affair is not to be. And crucially, Peppy embraces the new technology of the talkies while he grumpily rejects them as a mere fad. She is on the upward escalator of success, passing George heading inexorably down: yesterday's man.
Everything about The Artist comes as close to perfection as I have ever seen: especially the sequence near the beginning where we see successive takes for a scene in which Valentin has to dance briefly with Peppy in his movie's "gentleman's excuse-me" party scene. First it is merely awkward, and then they repeatedly ruin the shot by corpsing, laughing more and more uncontrollably each time. (The extras' bemused, submissive smiling is superbly captured). And then the scene is abandoned, because they are looking at each other with deadly seriousness, realising something important. They have at this moment fallen in love.
George is temperamentally averse to talking. His wife begs him to talk to her at the nadir of their relationship but he will not, and his pride will certainly not permit him to discuss the possibility of trying to restart his flagging career in the talkies, in which he has lost his crown. But it is not merely this: George, in his muddled and hotheaded way, believes talkies are just crass, and that he is an artist. Silence is art: what counts is spectacle and the ecstasy of seeing. And the movie quixotically takes George's side by being silent, with intertitles for dialogue until the very end – when George says something that reveals another reason for his unwillingness to be heard, and also about the European roots of Hollywood Americana.
What a wonderful picture this is: one of those films you yearn to watch again and again, while yet being fearful of spoiling the experience. It is one of the most eloquent movies imaginable.