A black and white silent film about the end of silent film-making? Not even its director or cast thought The Artist would get much attention, let alone be mooted for Oscar success.
And yet no one who has seen The Artist could doubt its popular appeal. It is the most joyous burst of pure pleasure to emerge on screen in years, a simple, tender story told in a simple format, expressing love and tragedy more effectively than any blockbuster ever could.
Jean Dujardin is George Valentin, a preening, moustached silent film star at the top of his game. One day, Peppy Miller (the dazzling Bérénice Bejo), a beautiful nobody with ambitions of Hollywood success, falls into his life and soon she is performing as an extra in one of his films.
Director Hazanavicius classily offers little more than just a hint of mutual attraction, teasing us with lovely touches such as the scene where Peppy enfolds herself in George’s jacket to pretend he is embracing her. Very soon however, their roles are reversed.
As Kinograph Studios begins to dismantle its silent productions with the arrival of “the talkies” Peppy’s star rises, while George is left financing his own doomed silent film, which aptly ends with his aged character sinking into quicksand.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the separation from his wife complete his downfall. Only Clifton (James Cromwell), his doting driver, and his faithful dog Uggy (a scene-stealing Jack Russell) stick with him.
Peppy, though is always nearby, if not appreciated. She goes to see his failure of a film on the night of her own premiere; she visits him in hospital. If only George were not too proud to accept her gestures of friendship.
The tone, though always skirting around the tragedy of unrealised romance, is playful and exudes the merriment and easy laughs of the silent films to which it is an homage.
The two leads are splendid (Dujardin won Best Actor at Cannes) and manage perfectly to capture the exaggerated style of the silent era without ever descending into farce. When George says that people do not “need” to hear him speak, he is quite right. His face does all the talking.
Hazanavicius makes a virtue of the lack of sound. Inter-titles are sparsely but cleverly used (particularly in one climactic scene where we expect one thing but get another) and the score compliments but never drowns the action. Tne scene where George suddenly begins to “hear” is so brilliantly imagined it makes us, like George, want to clamp our hands to our ears and make it all go away.
This is a film drenched in love - love for an old and forgotten Hollywood, for a simpler type of film-making, romantic love, even pet love! - and yet it is so delicately rendered, so understated, that it never feels syrupy.
Gorgeously shot and utterly absorbing, this is a truly original love story that will leave you speechless.