Michel Hazanavicius, the puckish creator of The Artist, opens his film with tongue folded firmly in cheek. We, the audience for The Artist inside a movie hall, are watching a movie whose introductory scene shows the inside of a movie hall whose audience is — like us — watching a movie. In other words, the patent artifice of this undertaking is laid bare for us from the very first frame, which reveals a mouth twisted open in agony.
A secret agent is being tortured by electrocution, and he's screaming as the volts pour into his skull — only, we don't hear him scream. These are the days of silent cinema, with a live orchestra (along with intertitles) communicating emotions in the absence of speech. On the other side of the screen, the hero of the film, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), paces about, waiting for the end so that he can take the stage and bask in the audience's applause. Hazanavicius is quick to unleash another visual gag. A sign admonishes: “Please be silent behind the screen.” As if we could hear him if he spoke.
The Artist, shot in lustrous black and white, is an exceedingly clever silent film about silent films (only in the end are we presented with a smattering of dialogue), and it brims over with affectionate nods to cinema both silent and spoken. Most obviously, the film's setting — the transition from the silent era to the talkies — evokes Singin' in the Rain. Either by design or remarkable coincidence, Valentin even looks like Gene Kelly (though his screen name harks back to the silent-film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino), and his costar, an ingénue named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), enters the movies the way Debbie Reynolds did in that most revered of musicals: as a chorine.
When Valentin is cast aside as the talkies take over, he is banished to his mansion like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. When his career nosedives and when Peppy blossoms into a star, we catch a whiff of the up-escalator-down-escalator trajectory of A Star is Born. And Peppy's disclosure, during a disconsolate moment, that she wants to be alone? That's Garbo, of course.
The year is 1927 — a most pertinent year in this final stretch of Oscar season, for it marked the release of the silent film Wings, which would go on to win the first ever Oscar for Best Picture (then called Most Outstanding Production), a feat that this deliberately (and inevitably) nostalgic ode to silent cinema no doubt strives to replicate. But Hazanavicius doesn't take the easy route to our hearts, by mimicking Chaplin and Keaton and their feverish slapstick that springs to our modern minds.
He is after something gentler, truer — he has fashioned a comedy of silence, a comedy that skirts its central problem of speechlessness through a myriad inventive means. Watching the hopelessly infatuated Peppy drape herself in Valentin's jacket and mime a romantic clinch, or seeing Valentin and Peppy mirror dance moves on either side of a scenery prop, we feel we are being spoken to in a language that needs no words. The apparent handicap of the film — its silence — transforms into an incalculable asset.
To cavil that the plotline is a platter of clichés is to miss the point, which is to anticipate the quietly inventive ways in which Hazanavicius forwards this tale. His most splendid conceit may be the one where Valentin's narrative arc is conveyed solely through the movie titles we glimpse on posters and on the marquee — he begins as The Thief of Her Heart, she watches his final silent movie (one in which he sinks in quicksand, which is not dissimilar to his plight off-screen) with Tears of Love, and so forth.
The Artist is an extremely slight creation — going in with all those Oscar-laden expectations, you may wonder, after a point, “Is that all there is?” — and it's more a marvel of engineering than a movie we warm up to, but Hazanavicius and his superb cast (including James Cromwell as a loyal chauffeur, John Goodman as a mercenary studio boss, and the most adorable Jack Russell terrier ever to mug in front of the camera) make complaining very, very difficult. The applause, at the end, from the audience around me was anything but silent.
Genre: Romantic dramedy
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell
Storyline: A silent film star finds himself washed up when the talkies arrive.
Bottomline: A silent movie in the very best sense