A story that’s so sweet and innocent, it’s practically forgivable for being the awards bait it’s being offered up as.
One of the biggest actors in 1927 Hollywood is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film star working for a studio owned by Al Zimmer (John Goodman). On the set of his latest film, George meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an extra he’d had a previous encounter with and a fellow dancer as well. Soon after, Zimmer shows off to George the latest in film technology: a recorded soundtrack with voices instead of cue cards. George laughs off any chance of it ever catching on, but it isn’t long before he sees his silent star begin to fade as Peppy Miller’s “talkie star” begins to rise. With the fruits of George’s former success souring all around him and no prospects of returning to the big screen, what hope does a silent film star have to entertain audiences he’s certain doesn’t want to ever hear him?
The ambition of this project is evident from the start: a black and white, virtually silent movie about a silent film star struggling to find relevance without a voice of his own. The timing, of course, in releasing such a high-concept film at awards season isn’t a coincidence, especially being composed of elements that seasonal award voters gravitate toward. In spite of this, the story has merit as a compelling yet innocent tale that just isn’t told anymore, and what’s more, it works. It’s obvious that the movie is made with modern equipment and cinematography, but special care has been taken to evoke the era rather than duplicate it. This may be the final time anyone will attempt a film of this sort, but building the reasons for its obsolescence into the plot as a story element is how the movie gets away with its premiss. This is the kind of film that award voters all give points to while championing other films individually for the bigger prizes, and it’s for that reason that The Artist may be poised to sneak up and win a few of those prestigious awards this year.
Jean Dujardin embodies his portrayal of George as a confident, full-of-life hero the silver screen, as incorruptible as he is undefeatable while still charming and humble when taking his bows. The offscreen George is practically the same as the onscreen George, right down to his lifelong friendship with his co-star dog. It’s natural and completely believable; you want to believe people like this really once existed. Bérénice Bejo’s Peppy (the name is cringe-worthy but an easy thing to get past) is George’s natural soul mate, but of course both characters are involved with or committed to others, and proper folk honor their vows and would never compromise them (good luck selling that in any modern movie). It’s no secret that somehow these two will find common ground together as the typical wrong conclusions and unswallowed pride keep them apart, and for a film being billed as a comedy, don’t be too surprised to find yourself becoming invested the well-being of our two heroes.
Besides the stars of the film, an exemplary supporting cast helps to bring the tale to life, including Malcolm McDowell, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, and one well-trained little dog named “Uggie.” In modern cinema where people expect to see giant robots pummel each other in three dimensions while rocking out to a techno-dance soundtrack, The Artist is a longing look at yesteryear and a reminder of how things got to where they are, an appreciation of a bygone era where filmmakers learned that there are no rules when it comes to making movies. It’s also a reminder that everyone likes to think that they have a little of George and Peppy in them, no matter how unrealistic that might have been then or be today.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)