NEW YORK – The best validation for the nostalgia of “The Artist” is the film, itself.
A silent movie in tribute to silent movies, “The Artist” puts its money where its mouth is, so to speak. Or not to, rather.
Michel Hazanavicius’ black-and-white, near-wordless film is a loving, irresistibly charming ode to a long-ago movie era that not only summons the dormant conventions of silent moviemaking, but makes them dance again.
The film opens with old-style titles and the first bursts of Ludovic Bource’s spirited, nimble score, which (as in most silents) plays a starring role throughout. The camera pulls back on a man being electrocuted by captors.
“I won’t talk,” he says – or so reads a title card. “I won’t say a word.”
It’s the first of many puns, but it’s also Hazanavicius’ promise, too. To make a silent film nowadays, he’s suggesting, is to subject oneself to torment. But the French filmmaker’s boldness has already been much rewarded: The film was feted at the Cannes Film Festival, snapped up by Harvey Weinstein and is now considered a favorite horse in the Oscar race.
The opening scene is merely a fiction within “The Artist.” The man is silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) – a kind of Douglas Fairbanks, swashbuckling matinee idol – and this is the premiere of his latest hit: “A Russian Affair.” The year is 1927, and the packed auditorium greets the movie with a standing ovation and raucous cheers that we can only infer.
The grinning, mustachioed Valentin glides across the stage in a tuxedo, basking in the adulation. A born entertainer, he casually and eagerly keeps the audience in his thrall, pantomiming tricks with his faithful sidekick, on screen and off, his Jack Russell terrier.
The dog (Uggie) deserves credit here. Obviously raised on “The Awful Truth” and “The Thin Man,” he puts shame to the digital Snowy of “The Adventures of Tintin.”
But the good times are soon to end: The Talkies are coming. When sound movies arrive, Valentin finds himself squeezed out of the business that so recently championed him. (The particular reason for Valentin’s inadaptability is revealed later.)
Kinograph Studios head Al Zimmer (John Goodman, robbed of his booming voice but not of his character-filled face) is quickly transitioning to talkies and a new bevy of stars. Among them is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an upstart whose rise Valentin aided.
Valentin’s fall is greased not just by irrelevancy but by the stock market crash and ego, (he self-finances an extravagant, belated silent film). Nearly destitute, he has little left besides his dog and his loyal chauffer (James Cromwell).
Miller, always quietly enamored with Valentin, ascends to stardom. Her “Beauty Spot,” released on the same day as Valentin’s “Tears of Love,” draws lines around the block. That their paths will finally align is of little surprise in Hazanavicius’ smart if predictable script.
Naturally, the image is the supreme element in a silent film (and a talkie, too, but that’s another story). But “The Artist” is disappointingly staid visually. Though it’s remarkably true in style and production (design by Laurence Bennett), it doesn’t bear the visual flair that perhaps it should.
Instead, “The Artist” is propelled by its performances, particularly Dujardin’s. He has an exquisite elegance, and builds a whole movie with only his gestures. It’s impossible to imagine “The Artist” without him, the wellspring of its charm.
But it doesn’t take a masterpiece to remind us of the power of silent films. It most succeeds in this mission, an altogether welcome whisper of “Don’t forget.”
The most moving shots in “The Artist” are of audiences in the grip of a movie, whether silent or not. Hazanavicius captures moviegoers collectively on their edge of their seats, reacting in worry or laughter. It’s this romance for the movies – and the melancholy wistfulness for the silent era – that makes “The Artist” affecting, urging us to remember the simple, captivating beauty of moving images in a theater.