“The Artist” is an exquisite piece from director Michel Hazanavicius that combines the nostalgia of the silent film era with fresh, bold innovation. An absolute pleasure to watch, the film is without a doubt one of the best of 2011.
The film charts the fall of one star and the rise of another, all while painting a vividly glorious portrait of old Hollywood. Silent Actor Star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) seems to have it all—wild success and fame, wealth, a hilariously loyal dog, and general joie de vivre. Contrastingly, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is a young up-and-comer who is selected to be a background dancer in one of Valentin’s films. The two hit it off and an infatuated friendship blossoms. When the manager of Valentin’s film production studio announces that the studio will switch its focus to “talkie” films and that Valentin will have to take on speaking roles, Valentin refuses and says he wants nothing to do with a film that requires him to speak, writing the “talkies” off as a passing fad. From there on out, Valentin’s life takes a downward spiral. He finds himself unable to obtain work, his wife leaves him, he loses his home and belongings, and his last attempt at a silent film flops completely. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller flourishes as Hollywood’s new sweetheart. Watching a young actress whom he once gave advice to rise above him overnight places an additional strain on Valentin’s disturbed psyche.
The film deals with a fear of many artists—becoming obsolete. Entertainer George Valentin’s grappling to remain relevant is explored at its full capacity, and the character exposes the danger of refusing to accept the world’s inevitable change. Valentin is a hopeless romantic for silent films, and the longer he clings to this, the further he falls. Peppy Miller takes on the role of Valentin’s guardian angel, anonymously purchasing all of his personal effects at an auction he holds to raise money and taking him in after an attempted suicide. Her unfailing faith in Valentin’s talent gives the audience hope for his cinematic redemption.
The filmmaking is almost entirely visual. However, the film incorporates a few moments of sound, which are incredibly striking and effective due to their scarcity. When George Valentin is told that the film industry is changing and sound is now necessary, he suddenly becomes strikingly aware of the everyday sounds around him. At one point, a feather drops and the result is an ear shattering crash.
One of the film’s only outright flaws is that it can air on the side of being gimmicky. However, somehow its self awareness makes up for this. “The Artist” does not come close to mocking the period material it deals with, but simultaneously does not take itself too seriously.
The movie acts as a celebration of the silent film era as well as the progress of the “talkie” industry, and the over-the-top visual spectacle of silent films is portrayed in an appreciative light. Large gestures and dynamic facial expressions dominate in the film, as they did in the silent film period, but the movie still manages to explore a wide emotional spectrum. The result is a captivating blend of melodrama, sentimental romance and screwball comedy. The audience finds the characters likable, and the movie has a universal soul despite its emulation of a cinematic style that came long before most of its viewers. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo shine brilliantly in the starring roles. They perfectly capture the lighthearted cheerfulness of the film era, while still maintaining emotional depth in their characters. The costuming and makeup are a shining beacon of what a period film should look like.
While crafting a picture of the silent era, this movie manages to create something that will most likely never be imitated, setting it far apart from other 2011 box office hits. Despite it’s silence, “The Artist” receives my loudest applause.