Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Stars: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman
Plot: As the talkies take Hollywood by storm, silent film actor George Valentin finds his career in tatters, but finds solace in Peppy Miller, a rising star of the new wave of movies.
Since the 1960s, cinema-goers have been used to watching films awash with colour. Going further back to the late 1920s into the 1930s, the advent of the ‘talkies’ heralded a revolution in how storylines were conveyed to their audience. This first seismic shift in cinematic norms from watching silent films interspersed with title cards with the characters’ exclamations to actually hearing their words was huge. The Artist is the antithesis of the CGI-laden movies we watch today – it harks back to the Golden Age of cinema that features a story of both love and tragedy.
In 1927, silent film star George Valentin (Dujardin), at the height of his fame, leaves a premiere of his latest movie A Russian Affair and bumps into a young woman named Peppy Miller (Bejo) in front of the cameras. Peppy kisses George on the cheek and the photo becomes front page news as the media wonder who this woman is. George’s wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) is not particularly impressed with the headline, despite his attempts at trying to cheer her up with his performing dog Uggie. Peppy auditions as a dancer at Kinograph Studios, which happens to be where George’s films are made – she makes it through as an extra on his next movie, A German Affair. Whilst filming a scene in which George and Peppy end up dancing together, there is an obvious spark between them, as they burst out laughing or looking into each other’s eyes during alternate takes.
George gives a few pointers to Peppy and her star begins to rise as she gradually climbs the billing from one film to the next. Two years later, studio boss Al Zimmer (Goodman) announces that production on silent films are coming to an end as he believes that ‘talkies’ are the future. George dismisses them as a fad and decides to finance, produce and star in his in next silent film Tears of Love, in which his character, ironically, gets stuck in quicksand and dies. The film opens on the same day as Peppy’s new sound film as well as the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The only way for George to avoid bankruptcy is for his movie to be a hit but unfortunately for him, crowds flock to see Peppy’s film and he loses everything. He is forced to move into an apartment with his valet Clifton (James Cromwell) and has to auction off all his belongings. While Peppy’s career takes off into the stratosphere, George becomes increasingly depressed to the point of suicide – but is there still time for him to find purpose in his life once more?
On paper, The Artist looks like it could have sunk without trace. Mostly silent except for the final reel, shot in black and white with two French leads who are virtual unknowns outside their native country and with only John Goodman and James Cromwell bearing any familiar significance among the cast. To be fair, the first ten minutes or so feels very unnatural to watch – being so used to having our characters chatting away to be suddenly confronted with silence except for a jazzy/orchestral score takes getting used to. However, once you’re totally immersed in the love story between George and Peppy, you soon realise that what you’re watching is cinematic gold. The plot actually follows a similar emotional rise and fall to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as it has the Wall Street Crash as a critical story strand. Although there’s not quite the same final Capra-esque impact, The Artist makes up for it by oozing with charm and style.
Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are perfectly cast in their roles of George and Peppy respectively – their on-screen chemistry is second to none and this is critical for the film to work. To learn how to convey emotions via gestures is an extremely difficult skill to accomplish, especially if you are used to starring in ‘talkies’, but the leads slip into their roles effortlessly. Dujardin portrays George’s decline in fortunes so brilliantly that he is very likeable, despite his character’s initial arrogance. Bejo, with her classic Hollywood good looks on her side is terrific – just watch the filming of A German Affair scene, where she suddenly makes the jump from extra to potential star in just a few minutes. Michel Hazanavicius’ direction is spot-on. George’s dream sequence in which he screams at the mirror and then at the sky is just one of many scenes that could have taken much longer if they had used the convention of words with sound. Another classic moment involves George and Peppy dancing, separated a screen – reminiscent of Fred and Ginger at their peak.
The Artist may not be to everyone’s taste (especially a handful of Liverpudlians who were reportedly expecting a little more sound), but if you love the old, classic black and white films of yesteryear, then this is a treat not to be missed. It’s not a masterpiece, but there’s a great deal to enjoy here.