A lovely trifle, ‘The Artist’is a film lover’s film, presented in black and white in Academy ratio (i.e. squarish like your old TV) and with (almost) no dialogue. It’s a warm, nostalgic look back at the late 1920s and early 1930s, presented with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight.
Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo first teamed up for ‘OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies’ (2006), a loving parody of 50s and 60s European spy films. (Hazanavicius and Dujardin then made a sequel without Bejo, ‘OSS 117: Lost in Rio’; both films are available to watch via the Netflix streaming service.) ‘The Artist’ evinces a similar spirit of paying tribute to the past by mocking it. But it’s a gentle, respectful mocking, and there are only a few moments where the spirit of poking fun descends to the point of being condescending.
Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent movie star at the top of his profession. He enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, though his marriage to stuffy-looking Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) appears strained. Into his life tumbles Peppy Miller (Bejo), an ingenue in training, the prototypical “girl from nowhere” who comes knocking on Hollywood’s door. She lands work as an extra in his latest movie, and sparks immediately fly between them.
Alas, George’s career is about to come to a screeching halt. It is 1927, and the movies have started to speak. Despite the pleadings of studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman), George is adamantly against sound on the matter of principle, he claims. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller has enjoyed a steady upswing in her career, moving quickly from bit parts to supporting roles to star billing, and she is giddily in favor of the new sound era.
Stitching together story elements from ‘A Star is Born,’ ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ and others, as well as characters inspired by real-life silent film stars John Gilbert and Charles Chaplin (and others), and recycling music wholesale from later films (most notably, Bernard Hermann’s score for ‘Vertigo’), ‘The Artist’ bears an unmistakable resemblance to Woody Allen’s ‘Zelig,’ another nostalgic movie that wove together real-life incidents with fictional recreations.
Like ‘Zelig,’ ‘The Artist’ is altogether pleasant to watch. It’s solidly-structured, moving easily from lighthearted antics to the deep sink of despair. It’s well-acted; Dujardin and Bejo are entirely captivating as they dance through flirtation, romance, action, comedy, and drama, and they are well-supported by Goodman, Miller, and James Cromwell (as George’s loyal servant), with Ed Lauter and Malcolm McDowell contributing nicely-played bit parts. The tech credits are superb, with the films-within-a-film looking and feeling authentic, for the most part, and outstanding production design by Laurence Bennett.
As delightful as it is, ‘The Artist’ is an insubstantial picture. Its charms rest on its lighter-than-air qualities, and so it doesn’t leave much of a mark as it lilts toward a happy ending. Within those limitations, however, it’s a marvelously entertaining film.
‘The Artist’ is now playing at Angelika Dallas, AMC Northpark 15, and Angelika Plano.