You know what it takes to make a silent black and white film, shot in standard aspect ratio, set in the 1920s, starring no one you’ve ever heard of? Balls the size of Gibraltar, and an immense amount of talent. The former I can only assume French director Michel Hazanavicius has, the latter, however, is obvious, given what is conveyed in his somewhat miraculous The Artist.
In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the hottest movie star in Hollywood. Everything he does – his acting, his dancing, his B-movie swashbuckling – is gold. The man simply cannot miss. And on top of it all, he seems genuinely nice and appropriately proud of what he does; none of the arrogant, megalomania movie star nonsense that so littered the time period (and, still does, to a degree).
After the premiere of his most recent film, he quite literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) an unassuming nobody who is suddenly thrust into the limelight after her chance encounter with George. Two years later, both people have lived a reversal of fortune. Refusing to jump on the talkie bandwagon, George casts himself into angst-ridden retirement, while Peppy becomes the hottest young actress in town. The two maintain a touch-and-go friendship while George crumbles and Peppy soars.
Now, the most prominent aspect of The Artist is obviously the simplicity in which its story is told. I don’t know the exact number of years, but The Artist is easily the most acclaimed silent film that’s been released in decades. It’s a feat that deserves specific recognition, considering that, in today’s world of mindlessly successful action blockbusters, silent films have more going against them any other genre.
To make a silent film work, a few things are needed that may not seem as fundamental in a talking picture. Music is one, production design is another, not to mention a captivating story, dynamic actors and a fresh take on an ancient method. The Artist has all of them, from Ludovic Bource’s insanely catchy rat-a-tat-tat score, to Guillaume Schiffman’s gorgeously fluid camera, to Laurence Bennett’s plush feel; everything excels where it needs to excel, which brings me to the film’s two anchors.
I’ve never seen, nor heard of, French actor Jean Dujardin and Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo, and I'm honestly thankful that I was unfamiliar with them. In George’s case specifically, we benefit greatly from not knowing what the real man sounds like. The fact that he is convinced wholeheartedly that America has virtually no interest in hearing his voice is utterly heartbreaking, a quality Dujardin conveys with electric energy. George is a demanding role, both physically and emotionally, and I do not care to find a single fault in Dujardin’s performance. In short, he deserves every bit of praise that’s currently being floated his way.
Likewise, and perhaps more so, Bérénice Bejo, who plays Peppy with a refreshing, unapologetic kindness that is stunningly whimsical. Bejo, who is married to Hazanavicius in real life, has eyes that speak more words than most actors can say in five movies. She is, in a word, flawless.
Now, all praise aside, it must be said that I do not consider The Artist a perfect film. It is accomplished, there’s no arguing that, but it has its faults. The primary one is its pacing and runtime. According to IMDb, the film is 100 minutes long, which is interesting, because it felt much longer than that. I can’t say that there were scenes that were expendable, but after an hour and a half, I found myself ready to move on. This isn’t because I’m not a fan of silent films, in fact, I’m a great admirer of them, I simply felt the story could’ve been played out a little faster.
Don’t let these minor burdens detract you from the fact that The Artist will surely be among the most nominated films for this year’s Oscars. In fact, months ago, I predicted it would win Picture, Director, and Actor (might as well throw Supporting Actress in the mix as well). Bold predications, but ones I currently stand by.
One final thing: about 20 minutes into the film, I correctly predicting its ending. Usually, I find this to be a fault of the movie, but when an ending is this satisfactory, how can one complain? B+